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Dealing with Ornery Co-Authors

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I have a manuscript draft for my undergraduate senior thesis, and I am trying to submit the darn thing before I have to submit graduate applications (I was hoping before NSF GRF, but that now seems unlikely). I am planning on going into a different subfield for graduate school, and my current research is on a different project with a different PI. Ideally, I would like to wrap up my undergraduate thesis as soon as possible, so I can fully dedicate myself to the new field and not have this one thing still dangling over my head (but don't get me wrong, I know that publishing a paper can take a year or more!)

My problem is that my ornery co-authors keep delaying submission of the manuscript. Every time I send out an email saying that I will be submitting in 1 week, one or two of them will suddenly respond with a slew of comments on my work. Generally these comments are not very helpful, things like "this is wrong", "fix this", etc. So I make the edits as best I can, send out the revised manuscript, and this time a different co-author will send back curt comments. Between the 6 co-authors, this has dragged on for almost 2 months! Also - I am kind of getting the feeling that they have little respect for this work since it was done by an undergrad... They sometimes send their edits to my PI instead of me, even though I am first author. My PI is very supportive, and he thought the manuscript could have been submitted at the end of the summer as it was. Unfortunately he is on sabbatical this semester and can't really prod the co-authors into being more cooperative.

I expected that I would make a lot of revisions and that the process would take a long time, but I am frustrated that my co-authors seem to have little interest in moving this process along. Does anyone have any experience dealing with obstructive or curt co-authors? Is this just a combination of unfortunate circumstances (undergrad work + co-author personalities), or is this something that I should expect for every future publication? I have a feeling it is the latter, so any advice on how deal with them graciously would be much appreciated!

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Well my thesis did not, but this manuscript does. My school did not have all of the necessary experimental set-ups/machines to run the project, so I went to 4 other schools/institutions in order to collect all the data that I needed.

The authors are:


my PI

another prof at my school was a thesis reader

a prof at a nearby school who was also a thesis reader and who runs an analytical lab I used

a scientist at a nearby institution who runs an analytical lab I used

a prof (international) who helped us collect samples at our field site

a prof (international) who runs an experimental lab I used

I guess another question would be: is there difference to how US and European scientists approach publishing manuscripts? Could that be a factor?

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I think this is a delicate subject! Ultimately, you are the first author so you have control over what goes into your manuscript. However, as students, we generally do not have very much power/influence. I can understand the other coauthors' hesitation -- they don't know you too well (unlike their other collaborators that they might have worked with for years) and they have a lot of other stuff going on. This paper isn't as important to them as it is to you. So, they would prefer to be cautious instead of putting their name onto something that they might not be certain is right.

Usually your PI would be the one to turn to for support and guidance. When the other profs send comments to your PI, he/she should tell the others to send them to you instead!

Everyone is going to have different opinions. Eventually, you will have to decide which suggestions/edits to take and implement them. Again your PI should be the one to help you decide what's important and also help you smooth over issues people might take with you not following their suggestion. Usually a couple of edits is all you really want to do -- send out a first draft, give a couple of weeks for comments, talk about them with your PI, implement what you decide is necessary, and then send out a second draft, stating which suggestions you've made and address any other comments you didn't implement (i.e. similar to a peer review process). If it's going to be 4 co-authors agreeing to one thing and 2 not, then maybe some kind of discussion is needed to work it out. You might repeat this iteration with a third draft or you might just send out one last final draft before submitting the article.

Another important thing is to set deadlines for people to reply to your drafts. Again, your PI would help you enforce these deadlines as well as choosing a deadline that gives everyone enough time but does not take forever.

Finally, although you are the one who is leading the manuscript, as a relatively junior member in the group, you sometimes just have to be mindful not to step on too many toes and you might not be able to do as many things as a first author prof might be able to do. But you shouldn't let yourself get pushed around either. As I said, it's a delicate balance!

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