First author boogie
November 3, 2017 11:46 PM   Subscribe

I'm writing my first manuscript for a scientific journal article, as first author. I got a first draft together, it looked pretty OK to me -- and it was ripped to shreds by my co-authors. So now I have 5 million comments to address by five different people... this weekend. Second draft due Monday. Hope me please.

This was me. I am now continuing my development as a late-blooming full-on scientist by trying to publish a manuscript of some chemical analysis and in vitro immunological work on a botanical preparation. No, scratch that. I'm trying to write the damn thing, and once that miracle happens, then I'll try to publish it. AKA...
  1. Do research
  2. ???
  3. Publish research!
To be honest with you, I am a little overwhelmed. My co-authors, all of whom (unlike me) are Ph.D. authors of several articles each, are undoubtedly Right in everything they are telling me to do with this manuscript -- I don't want to sound like I resent their input or something. However, I've never done this kind of collaborative writing before, and they don't speak with one voice -- I have several comments from different people on the same places in the paper and I'm not sure how to give everybody what they want. I'm the tie-breaker, right, as first author? Or is the last author the tie-breaker? Their comments are all substantive, not choice-of-words or something simple. The last author, in fact, wants me to tell the story in a totally different way -- which OK, she knows better than I do what will get us published, so I will try. But aaaaaagh?

I guess I want to ask you what advice you have for me about revising a scientific manuscript in response to diverse and sometimes incompatible comments. By Monday. The first step is to watch a lot of Soul Train videos on youtube and human relations questions on AskMe, right? No? Um OK -- so what is the first step?
posted by pH Indicating Socks to Science & Nature (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I collaborate with that many people fairly often and I've found that a Skype call is usually an important step before and after people do track changes or comments. These things can get hashed out much better with voice.
Also collaboration is like dating. Some people get along well and others don't. Take note and move on for the next time.

Everyone is trying to make the paper better. Keep telling yourself that.
posted by k8t at 11:56 PM on November 3, 2017 [7 favorites]

Look for the comments that are actually contradictory first - there won't be as many as it first feels like. Try to think about why your colleagues have said that. Is there a way of fixing both? If so do that. Leave any you can't reconcile.

Next fix the easy stuff.

Now look at the rest. Comments are just suggestions. If there are any you disagree with then don't change them. You know this research better than anyone.

If anything requires substantial rewriting and might be affected by the contradictory comments you haven't done anything with then leave it.

On Monday you are able to show you have really engaged with the feedback, you can have a discussion about the contradictory bits, you can justify why you are standing by any bits where you disagreed with the feedback and you can say thank you for the rest.

In my experience writing collaboratively is an iterative process. I found it really stressful but learned that people just make comments as suggestions and quite often on further thought they agree with you that it wouldn't work or another way is better.

Good luck!
posted by kadia_a at 3:14 AM on November 4, 2017 [10 favorites]

First, don't be hard on yourself. Writing journal articles is hard and even people who write them regularly go through lots of drafts with lots of red scrawls on them.

After the figures, the storyline is probably the most important part of the writing. If your senior author's suggestion for storyline isn't totally insane, you should probably go with it. There's a tendency for the people involved with the actual research to want to write things chronologically - we started by looking at X and that led to us doing Y and then Z - but reasonably frequently casting the story to read Y, X, Z makes the ideas more compelling and shows the data better.

After you've rearranged your paragraphs and figures to reflect the new story/focus, add in the necessary connecting phrases/paragraphs to flesh this out.

Then go and deal with the other stuff. Deal with the grammar things first then go in and look at phrasing choices. Science writing tends to use phrases that are over formalized. This is a hill you don't want to die on. Trust me.

At this point, if there's someone on the paper that you feel comfortable showing this intermediate draft to, I'd go for it. Often times there's a go to person in lab for this kind of thing. Figure out who this is and bribe them with food or minipreps or something.

I've found that the areas of greatest red ink tend to be areas in which people haven't been clear. You may be getting three conflicting suggestions because they're confused in general on that sentence or paragraph. Sometimes reading things out loud to yourself or a labmate will help untangle knotted sentences.

Good luck! (If I wasn't super busy, I'd offer to take a look, but this weekend is: toddler, job, day trip to visit family...)
posted by sciencegeek at 3:30 AM on November 4, 2017 [7 favorites]

Hi! Yeah your coauthors are going to contradict eachother, which really sucks. Often they will contradict thrmselves! They are not "right" per say because there is no right. Maybe half the comments you got are really good/helpful.

It's hard when you're a new author to know which half. As a general rule the last author is always right, unless you're sure they are horribly wrong. It's ok to say X author wants it this way, and I can't do yours and theirs. Also, just don't finish by Monday. That's unrealistic. You can almost always have more time. Also expect like 8 more revisions. Having a bunch of coauthors can be a long painful process, especially your first time round. Sorry it sucks. It is not a reflection on you, this is simply the process.
posted by Kalmya at 5:10 AM on November 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

First, talk a bit with your co-authors about workflow. Deadline is Monday 5pm? 7am? 11:59pm?
what time zone? How much time do each have to put into this by the deadline? Someone may have a planned dinner Sunday night, or a big meeting Monday. Are you willing to pull an all-nighter Sunday night, or is your deadline actually 8pm?

Next, freeze the current version of the paper. Always have a version of the paper that's submittable, so if you get half-way into a major rewrite, and run out of time, you have the option of rolling back to the prior approach. Do this by creating a couple of directories, or creating a little system of naming files: Submittable1, 2, 3; JamiesRewrite1,2,3; etc.

How are you collaborating? Sharing a google doc? FedEx'ing paper copies with redlines leading to the back of the page with comments there? Agree on whether only one person actually edits the doc, or whether everyone can be editing at once. There's a trade-off there between efficiency and losing control. You might assign a section to one person and trust that a) they'll do a good job with the section, and b) they'll make the section work with the rest of the paper.

Next, you say there's a likelihood of a major rewrite. Plan on that working out. Can you help with that or is she on her own? Is everyone good with that? If she's on her own, the others can do other detail work in the meantime, such as graphs, figures, typesetting math formulas, formatting bibliography, etc.

Plan a couple of milestone meetings, or communications (Sat noon, Sat 8pm, Sun noon, Sun 8pm) where you communicate the overall status of the paper.

Good Luck, and Congrats!!
posted by at at 6:11 AM on November 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

Make a verrrry detailed outline that aligns with the structure that your corresponding (last) author wants. Detailed to the level of beginning middle and end of each paragraph. e.g.
1. We found X to be true so we wished to determine if Y was also true.
2. To test this we jimjangled the why-ometer n times and showed a thing
3. with these data we conclude that Y is also true
if your first draft has an extant paragraph that fits, plug it in there.
Also, with this outline, write your whole conclusion(s) out in as verbose a form as needed. Over drafts this will get pared down into a terse statement that all the authors can agree upon, but it will take a surprising amount of effort. Get started on that now.

Run this conceptual outline by your corresponding BEFORE committing any further verbiage and angst to this.
Also, let her see the next actual draft before it goes out to the other authors, and then put it past each one by one. Getting comments in serial rather than enmasse is a great way of having your co-authors edit each other (TRACK CHANGES ALWAYS) rather than you having to reconcile.

Finally, if it looks like one of your co-authors (or corresponding) is dragging their feet and not being responsive, loop them out a few drafts rather than wait.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 7:32 AM on November 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

First, talk with the corresponding author and see if they are adamant about rearranging the paper. If so, there is no reason to fix the comments of the other coauthors. Let the rearranged version be the one you send out tomorrow, it doesn't have to be further along than the current. You can send it out with a note "Dr X wanted a different tack, I have rearranged a draft of the paper to reflect this, see what you think".
posted by 445supermag at 4:35 PM on November 5, 2017

Hey thanks, everyone! All of your answers were helpful.

I didn't finish this weekend -- that deadline is getting pushed, which I don't think will be a problem. I just couldn't quite get my head in the game. So I boogied instead, and I invite you to join me.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 9:17 PM on November 5, 2017

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