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Co-Authoring with Undergrads.

21 January 2014

One of my current research pieces is getting ready for Phase: Manuscript. We actually still have a little bit of time before we have the results we’ll need to publish anything, but the simulation development is done and we’re ready to go about conducting simulated investigations. So I’m having my undergrads (Two incredibly talented young women studying engineering at local universities VFU and UHR.) write the paper. I’ll have them co-first author it, and I’ll be senior author. One of them is planning on going to medical school, and the other on being a practicing engineer. The former may benefit more than the latter from being published, but both are enthusiastic.

So I’m teaching them how to write a scientific paper. The first thing that goes into writing a scientific paper is reading a bunch of scientific papers. In general, but also focusing on papers on similar topics to the one we’ll be writing. I’m going to confess something: I don’t like reading medical papers. I find they’re often not terribly useful to me. Usually, I need to read medical papers to do a background on a phenotype for a paper or grant about a simulation I’m proposing. But the simulation itself isn’t designed to address the condition, so the medical details are often irrelevant. Similarly, I’m not trying to advance the theory of simulation from a computer science perspective, so those papers aren’t useful either.

The papers that are really useful to me are the (generally case studies of) deployments of simulations in health systems. And sadly, much of the literature on that topic is absolutely fuckin’ gash (and Mark Renton would say). Engineering done half-assedly by physicians who don’t know what they’re doing and trying to prove a point they selected ahead of time. If it weren’t a total dick move, I could easily write a review called “Your Simulation Sucks; Bad Uses of Discrete Event Simulation in Medicine”.

But more productive is to contribute good work to the field, so that physicians can see what it looks like, and hopefully decide that partnering with, you know, people trained to do the work will be useful. But. I’ve been sidetracked by my own self-aggrandizement. Again. Back to the topic at hand.

So, to teach my interns (My well-paid interns. Eschew free labor.) how to write papers, I’m essentially going through my own process, and giving them access to it. I wrote an outline of the paper to be written: Introduction, Background, Methods, Results, Discussion, and Conclusions. Under each I wrote a couple of topic sentences about the material to be covered. Where relevant, I put needed references in parentheses: “Simulation in clinical care delivery (5-8 references)”. I have particular references in mind for a lot of these, but I want to see what papers the students find to inform the manuscript as well.

And then I’ll have them write drafts of each section, and take them through improving them, expanding them, correcting them. Introducing them to scientific candor and revision. It’s a cool project and a good topic. I think we’ll have something informative and productive to contribute. And even though I almost never get a response when I directly ask for input, I’ll ask anyway: What lessons have you learned from either mentoring undergrad authors, or being an undergrad writing a paper? What should I impart? What didn’t you know you wish you had? What did you, or your students, do well?

I want this internship to be as valuable as possible for these very promising students. That starts with paying them. With allowing them to contribute to the intellectual development, not just the grunt work. I’ve done that. Now I want to let them contribute to the reportage and dissemination. And provide them with what I hope will be career-developing and educational experience.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 21 January 2014 15:44

    We teach a semester long course on how to write a modest research proposal that all Bio majors are required to take. Most call it “the hardest class they’ve ever taken.” If your undergrads are very talented (and it sounds like they are), they may not find this as challenging as some of our students do. However, stumbling blocks in the past when I’ve taught the class:

    – Getting lost. We teach them how to read papers, how to start to critique papers, but not *which* papers to read. Part of their grade is from judging their information literacy skills. “Tricks” we all know for reading papers in a new field (find a recent review, find references in that review, read primary articles, rinse, repeat) are new to them.

    – Not reading enough. We collect a bibliography, and tell them they need to average 2 new articles a week, minimum. The best proposals come from students who have working bibliographies in the upper 30’s. Most get to 14-15 and peter out, because 2 articles a week in a new field is a hell of a lot for the average undergrad. Most also don’t grasp that if they read an article, and it ultimately doesn’t fit with the proposal, they should leave it out.

    – Missing the narrative (or the opposite). Introductions in particular can suffer from “paper #1 says this, and then paper #2 says this, and then paper #3 says…” instead of discussing topics of interest and bringing references to bear on them. The opposite is where the overall narrative is mostly fine, but there are large logical leaps that the students don’t see because they’ve become mini-experts on the material (or they don’t fully understand the connections).

    Writing each section (with a deadline!) will help tremendously. We have a few faculty who teach the class as a seminar with nothing due until the last day of class. Some of my best research students have written some of the worst proposals I’ve ever read simply because they got zero feedback along the way.

    Good luck, have fun!

  2. Syd permalink
    28 January 2014 10:23

    This sounds great. I’m glad that you are doing this with the students. It will be helpful to them in so many ways.

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