“Slap your adviser (and I hope, s/he slaps you back).”

Your manuscript is both good and original;
but the part that is good is not original,
and the part that is original is not good.
Samuel Johnson

I am currently reviewing a paper for a special issue. In the beginning, it reminded me a bit of my first submissions. Instead of writing a journal paper, this person wrote something like a thesis report. While reading the submission, I recognized a lot of the mistakes I (hopefully) used to make — and I began making notes what to write on the feedback form to the authors. I am still struggling to get my (scientific) works published, and I feel empathic pain with others who likely have the same problem. And if I can give any information that makes it easier for another author to establish his/her professional voice, I’m all for it. I love constructive feedback.

But I also have an … active imagination. When reading, my mind automatically comes up with sarcastic ideas for answers. I made some very painful learning experiences on the way to developing a good filter, but the unprintable ideas still come, especially when I get angry. And when reading, I got angry — not so much at the author (I guess this person is doing his/her PhD or has just finished it), but at the adviser who did not stop the submission at the department door.

So, quotations like:

“Son, where did you go to school? If I were you, I’d write them and get my fucking money back.”
Dimitri “Jimmie” Viner, in discussions with his flight test engineers

came, as well as suggestions like:

“Slap your adviser for me. With better feedback, you could have conducted/written about a publishable study. Perhaps next time, if you are still in academia that is.”

It’s (private) fun, it maintains my mood when reading, but it’s not something I would ever write (again). On the more constructive side, I was reminded how much books like:

  • Alley, M. (1996). The Craft of Scientific Writing (3rd ed.). New York: Springer.
  • Thomson, P., & Kamler, B. (2013). Writing for Peer Reviewed Journals. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

helped me, either by directly improving my writing skills (Alley) or by giving me a framework for my next submissions (Thomson & Kamler). I was about to recommend these books — and, most importantly — to have a look at the papers published in that journal before submitting anything! To really analyze the papers and adapt the own paper to that style, to find out the differences between a thesis report and a submission in that journal! (referring to Thomson & Kamler here).

But I do not think that I will give that kind of feedback either.

What stopped me cold during reading was something I had not expected. The first parts were okay, not written by a native speaker and with terrible punctuation, but still … okay. But suddenly during the method/results section all the parameters of good scientific writing dropped. The author started to blunder along, the argumentation did not make sense, the results were long-winded with inclusion of information you calculate but do not report. It did not make sense — it might be that two or more authors cooperated without reading the corresponding parts, but I find it unlikely. The discrepancy was too great.

So I copy-pasted a few of the better written sentences into Google … and, yup, as expected, found (nearly) the identical sentences in existing papers.

I can understand that authors want to copy and paste from their previous introductions/theoretical backgrounds. However, in this case, I think it’s more likely that a PhD student/early post-doc copied from the works of his adviser, hopefully with his/her knowledge, and probably due to language difficulties.

But this does not make it okay. Self-plagiarism is still still plagiarism, esp. if you drop the sources.

The paper is a reject in any case — the methodological quality is too low — but I am going to comment on the (self-)plagiarism. Not only because I think it’s the right thing to do — there is too much kept unsaid in academia, many people are conflict-averse, even if the conflicts help improve the overall work and science itself. But also because I am angry.

This author wasted my time — my comments (at least to the plagiarized parts) cannot be helpful — and it puts into question everything else this author has written. The adviser of that author also wasted my time — submissions of that quality should have been stopped — the new parts have the horrible “shitty-first-draft” quality (Lamott) that could make it into a good paper. But allowing such a patchwork of (self-)plagiarism and bad analysis being submitted is irresponsible.

So, to conclude this rant, what I would like to write in the review is the title of this blog posting:

“Slap your adviser (and I hope, s/he slaps you back).”

because both failed miserably in my view, but that would be unprofessional. But still, sometimes I wonder … what happens to science … and where we are going as a discipline …


  1. The first thing I tell students starting his/her graduate studies about publishing is read, read frequently and from the top journals in our field (list provided). My expectation is that by the time they are ready to starting thinking about writing a manuscript, they have gone over a few hundreds of papers.

    Thus they know the structure of a (good) manuscript, the language, ….

    I also do not let them write a single line of text until we have jointly iron-out the “story” line with the actual figures and tables to be published (http://lucbeaulieu.com/2013/06/30/writing-your-first-scientific-paper-part-i-the-datastory-flow/ )


  2. Hoi Luc,

    thank you for the comment and the link … I agree with arranging the bones of the story first before writing the flesh is the way to go. I am currently preparing a presentation for the next MinD-Akademie about writing, and from what I’ve read on your blog, I think this way of supervising/mentoring is the way to go. Read, get to know the community, get to know the questions that are asked and the way they are answered … and go beyond it once you have established that you can do the ‘basic’ research.

    Unfortunately, I have seen quite a few cases where the supervisor is never available (and more of a lobbyist and PR manager than scientist with content expertise). And frankly, I think that the young scientists with these supervisors are cheated out of their scientific career (or at least have it very hard to succeed — and they are still cheated). But strangely enough, many think that this is normal in science (did so too) and that they should be able to do everything on their own, and if they falter, they haven’t shown enough own initiative.

    So, I don’t know what kind of supervisors this person had (judging from the submission I am guessing a bad one) — or whether it is normal in his/her discipline to — what I consider — plagiarize sources. But still, I think the supervisor failed the scientist and the scientist failed science.

    It’s a shame that can take years to recognize poor working environments and abusive-neglective supervisors …

    All the best


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