Saturday, December 27, 2008

Why shall we (research advisors) avoid directly writing on students' research papers?

Posted on Sunday Oct 12, 2008

When students started their research in my research group, I told them that "Don't expect me to do tool implementation for your projects", "Don't expect me to do experiments for your projects", and "Don't expect me to write sections of your papers for you". Indeed, I didn't say that "Don't expect me to give you research ideas to work on" since it is very tough for students to come up with good research ideas to work on when they first start their research. At the same time, I have tried different ways of giving students space and opportunities to think about their own research ideas. Such ways are taking good effect and many students are improving themselves in coming up with good research ideas. That is a separate topic here and deserves another post of discussion.

Why shall I (as a research advisor) avoid directly writing on students' research papers?

Two main reasons. First, if I write for my students, they never get a chance to learn how to write themselves. If they don't know how to write papers, how can they write their own dissertation? The advisor cannot write the dissertation for them! How can they write their research papers after they graduate? The advisor cannot accompany the students for all their professional career.

Second, a bit selfish reason. I don't have much time to write papers for students: I have proposals to write (so far few of my students can write proposals for me but I have been trying to train them to have the capability when they get close to graduation), I have professional services to serve, I have a good number of students to work with, advise, and train, ...

Although I told students that I didn't write for them, I spent much effort in training them how to write and how to improve their writing. Below are several things that I do:

*. I mark my revisions and suggestions on hardcopy of their writing submitted for my review and revision; I don't directly write on the LaTeX source files or Word files (whatever format is used in paper writing). Doing so can "force" students to at least recognize and understand what I marked and commented.

*. I walk through with the students in person on some major issues being marked and tell them the reasons for my revisions. These reasons may not be written down on the hardcopy as comments. Basically, I want them to learn the corrections not only for the particular mistakes that the students made but also for future similar types of mistakes that the students shall avoid making. At the same time, I ask the students whether they have any doubts or questions on my marks and I then address their doubts and questions if any. Smart students will always take opportunities to ask me the reasons for revision places that the students don't understand.

*. Before requesting my review or revision of a student's paper, the student should ask a peer student to review and revise the student's paper. Doing so not only allows other students to be trained with review skills but also reduce my revision load on picking up those low-level, easy-to-spot writing issues. When I finish my revisions on the hardcopy, I expect that the peer student who reviewed the paper also look at my revisions and asked themselves "why didn't I catch these issues?" Another major motivation for reducing my revision load is that when a paper includes too many low-level writing issues, I would be busy in correcting those low-level writing issues and forget about the logical flows and high level technical content issues. That is, the student, the author of the paper, will lose much of the benefit given by me in improving his or her paper. Including too many low-level writing issues in a student's paper before submitting it for my revision would just do harm to the student, not being able to take full advantage of my advice on their high level, more important, writing issues and research issues.

*. I will pay much attention to the abstract and introduction sections, whose writing is very important and students often don't do a good job. These parts often require much more iterations of my revisions than other parts of the paper. Students often don't do a good job in organizing the logical flow and the organization or reasoning of the motivations.

*. I will ask students to turn their common mistakes into some regular expression patterns, and then use a tool called style-check developed by Neil Spring so that the students can guard against some low-level issues themselves (if they cannot guard against these issues manually easily). Frankly, I found that several of my students still make many low-level mistakes repeatedly and they don't use style-check as I suggested. I hope these students can take full advantage of tools to help address the low-level issues of their writing, and exploit and focus my guidance on the high-level issues of their writing.

Next I discuss what I do to help students to write early and write enough so that I can train their writing.

Many of you may wonder: when deadlines are coming and students are lagging behind in their writing, we would have to jump in to make these deadlines by writing the papers for the students since we really don't want to miss these important deadlines. Indeed, I had been through these situations.

One possible way to deal with that is to really impose strict policies to students: if they don't prepare their papers early enough for us (advisors) to review or revise, let's just bypass the deadlines. In principle, bypassing an important deadline will do more harm to students than the advisor: the advisor has multiple students to work with and have multiple papers to submit, but the students individually may just have a limited number of papers to submit yearly or in their whole graduate program. Each year, there exist only several top conference paper deadlines and a small number of good or right conferences for the work. Missing some important deadlines produces very negative impact on students' research record building (indeed as well as the advisor's), given that often the time papers will be rejected by top conferences.

But the above way often doesn't work (either for the advisor or the student). The advisor doesn't want to miss important deadlines either. The students also want to make the deadlines but their deadline-making or engineering skills (c.f. my talk slides on research skills) are often not good. Often the time, the students postpone their paper writing to the last minute; they often don't like paper writing.

Then how can I help students to write early? Here is what I do.

*. After a student (or I, or both) has some promising research idea, and both I and the student feel that the idea could have a high chance of leading to a good research project, before the student goes ahead to carry out the implementation of the approach, I will ask the student to write down the following sections (see my slides on writing papers for a paper's structure):
-- Abstract
-- Introduction
-- Example
-- Approach (the description of the approach could be high level)
(No implementation section or evaluation section is required at this stage)
-- Related work
-- Conclusion

If the student can produce some preliminary results (e.g., by doing some manual walk-through of the approach), the student can also put in a "preliminary results" section. The resulting draft would form a fine workshop submission draft (but note that it is not necessary for us to submit it as a workshop submission unless really needed in some cases to gather early feedback on the work from the community).

Basically, the student presents to me a "design" document (similar to one in software development) before the student starts implementation. Then I can revise and understand what the student is planning to implement, and brainstorm with the student on possible new ideas or improvement of the existing ideas based on the writing. Doing so can avoid some of the past issues on a student's approach or research project being a bit "black-box" to me and I found out issues when reading the student's draft when being very close to the deadline and then the student couldn't fix the issues that I identified.

Note that, at this stage, the student must identify a convincing motivating example and describe it in the example section before moving on to implement the approach. I had one past bad case where a student couldn't find a convincing motivating example for his approach and then moved on to the implementation of the approach, and ended up with an unsuccessful project.

*. After the student implements the approach, the student expands and refines the approach section and adds the implementation section. I will review and revise these sections. Note that in this step when the student does some hands-on stuffs, new ideas may come up and the originally written down approach can be revised and improved. I am very supportive on the student's hands-on experience and generating new ideas from hands-on experience. But that doesn't mean that the student should directly dive into tool implementations without thinking enough or finishing the first step of paper writing described above. In my belief, good new ideas can come from both creative thinking before tool implementation and during/after tool implementation.

*. Before the student carries out the evaluation, the student needs to write the experimental design subsection and other subsections in the evaluation section that can be written before the experimental results are available. Doing so can help me make sure that the student is doing the right things in the evaluation.

*. After the student finishes the evaluation, the student fills in the experimental results subsection. I will review the new subsections as well as the whole draft before submission.

Doing this style of phased writing, students benefit in several major ways. (1). They don't rely on me to write for them before the deadline (since I won't). (2). They allow me to have opportunities to iterate with them on their writing and improve their writing since in the early phases, we don't have the deadline pressure. (3). They can gather feedback from me early on to help them to avoid making wrong decisions or misinterpreting my suggestions in their research development. (4). Our remote research collaborators (if any) can read through the early formal writing to give us feedback and suggestions on the research development.

So far I have quite good experience in training and educating students to write research papers with the above ways. In the end, I indeed enforce what I told my students "Don't expect me to write sections of your papers for you". More importantly, most of the students (after working with me for a short period of time) in my group can independently write whole papers without my writing there (with my helps only in a way of my not-very-significant revising on hardcopies of their papers). I am very glad to see that happen while knowing that many of my fellow junior faculty members are still busy writing papers for their students.

Hope my experiences described above can further help my students to understand why I am doing so and further improve what they are doing while working with me, and help other advisors at least to think how to do better along this line of advising students in writing papers...


  1. Nice post Tao. Very thoughtful, and useful insights. I especially like the idea about peer critiquing and will use it in the future.

    I have a slightly different view in general. I often wind up participating more directly in the paper-writing process, however my circumstances are different. I'm at an industrial research lab, so any students we have are interns. They're only around for 3 months and then they're gone. So if they don't have all the skills necessary to write a paper, we don't have much extra time to invest in them to get them up to that level. By contrast, at a university students can delay graduation by the amount of time that it takes to learn paper-writing skills if they are particularly weak.

    I also rationalize that since they're only working with me for a short period, they can benefit significantly from seeing how my research process differs from their advisor's. Exposing them more fully to my paper-writing process helps give them a contrasting example, and hopefully one they can draw on in their future career.

    Lately I've found myself using some of the same techniques you outlined, including having them draft the paper content and structure before embarking on the research details. I try to gauge how well they can write and give them more freedom if it looks like they are up to it.

    I do agree that by doing some of the writing myself, the students might learn less. That is, if they don't study how I write, and how it contrasts with their experience or with their advisor's style, then they won't learn from it. This is a risk, and it does favor short-term gain (a quicker route to a paper) over long-term gain (definite student learning though active discussion). I think that if I were advising a student as their faculty advisor, that I'd take an approach closer to what you recommend.

    Kurt Partridge

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