How to contribute to a paper

This one is rather off-centre, but my guess is that it might well be useful for some students. I think most people get their first papers published either working alone, or by collaborating with their supervisors or perhaps another PhD student, and thus you are in a familiar environment with people you know well. It can be intimidating to contribute to a paper with a couple of senior researchers or even to try and handle a big research group on your own as a senior author on a paper. While this micro-guide is aimed at the former situation, it should also serve to help with the latter as well.

1. Establish what your role is, what is expected of you and when it is needed. If you are just a data-entry monkey, that’s fine as long as you know what data you have to enter, in what format, and who needs the information by what day. If you are not given a specific role, it is probably worth asking what needs doing, or asking for more details. If not, it’s easy to get marginalised, or end up duplicating work or doing everything.

2. Even so, do help out where you can. Do offer to help if you have nothing else to contribute, there are all kinds of mechanics to papers that can be helped with even if you are not directly involved in the writing at the time (like hunting down references, formatting graphs and figures, arranging the appendices etc.). It’s donkey work, but needs doing and if it’ll make the paper go faster then you might as well offer to do it.

3. Don’t be afraid to offer your thoughts and criticisms. The point is to produce a good paper, not for you to just sit and do a couple of parts on the side. However, do respect the first author’s decisions on the paper – it is his, and he has to take the responsibility for what is written. Even if you disagree profoundly, it’s his choice what to say ultimately. Do argue your case, and of course if you have found a major problem it will probably get mentioned in the discussion.

4. Do keep the communication going. If you don’t know what is going on, or need help or advice, or there is problem, then talk to someone. It’s no good working in the dark, and if others are being uncommunicative, then take the initiative rather than waiting to find out what the problem is.

5. Be aware that people can work in very different styles. You might not be happy about how the paper is coming together or would prefer to do things in a different way, but try to be accommodating.

6. Accept your place on the authorship list. If you feel you are getting a raw deal, then perhaps have a quiet word with the lead author or your supervisor, but remember it’s very hard to gauge what each person did on the manuscript, so accept that the first author probably knows who did what.

I can’t think of anything extensive to add to that list, but these are all issues I have had to face up to contributing to papers either as a lead author or contributing. The issues are of course exacerbated if you do not know the other authors well, or if you are well separated (keeping communication and discussions going between China, the US and the UK is a nightmare of time differences and distance), but they are surmountable. In short, if the paper ends in a knife fight*, something went wrong, so try to make sure you weren’t the cause of it, or are the one in the academic arena waiting for the portcullis to rise and the challenger to step out onto the sand.

*Experienced researchers will tell you that this is not a metaphor.

1 Response to “How to contribute to a paper”

  1. 1 Useful Links | Dave Attempts a PhD Trackback on 08/10/2012 at 1:45 pm
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