The Secret Paper Passing Network in Science and Beyond

How to Succeed in Grad School

I can’t believe this tidbit of graduate school lore never made it beyond the world of science. I am referring to the “How to succeed in grad school” letter from an MIT engineering student in the mid 1990s, which has been copied and handed down from student to student over the years. Here is the secret paper passing network explained:

“Once you start working on a research project, it’s a good idea to get into the habit of writing an informal paper to explain what you are up to and what you’ve learned every few months. Start with the contents of your research notebook. Take two days to write it. If it takes longer, you are being perfectionistic. Stop and start over with your eyes closed.

This update isn’t something you are judged on; it’s to share with your friends. Write DRAFT-NOT FOR CITATION on the cover. Make a dozen copies and give them to people who are likely to be interested (including your advisor!). This practice has most of the benefits of writing a formal paper (comments, clarity of thought, writing practice, and so forth), but on a smaller scale, and with much less work invested. Often, if your work goes well, these informal papers can be used later as the backbone of a more formal paper, from an Working Paper to a journal article.”

I’d add that I’ve learned you can build a career on working papers outside of science. If your field lacks a commitment to rigorous evidence based interventions (e.g. International development and macroeconomics) then peer reviewed, refereed articles, are not the best use of your time. The average science paper gets submitted 5 times (and rejected 4!), because we do care about rigor.

Once you become part of the Secret Paper Passing Network, you’ll find that people give you copies of draft papers that they want comments on. Getting comments on your papers is extremely valuable. Reciprocate! You get people to take the time to write comments on yours by writing comments on theirs.

How to critique, write, and generally not make a fool of yourself after school:

Writing useful comments on a paper is an art. Learning to critique other people’s papers will help your own writing. To write really useful comments, you need to read the paper twice, once to get the ideas, and the second time to mark up the presentation.

If someone is making the same mistake over and over, don’t just mark it over and over. Try to figure out what the pattern is, why the person is doing it, and what they can do about it. Then explain this explicitly at length on the front page and/or in person.

The author, when incorporating your comments, will follow the line of least resistance, fixing only one word if possible, or if not then one phrase, or if not then one sentence. If some clumsiness in their text means that they have to back up to the paragraph level, or that they have to rethink the central theme of a whole section, or that the overall organization of the paper is wrong, say this in big letters so they can’t ignore it.

Don’t write destructive criticism like “garbage” on a paper. This contributes nothing to the author. Take the time to provide constructive suggestions. It’s useful to think about how you would react to criticism of your own paper when providing it for others.

There are a variety of sorts of comments. There are comments on presentation and comments on content. Comments on presentation vary in scope. Copy-edits correct typos, punctuation, misspellings, missing words, and so forth. Learn the standard copy-editing symbols. You can also correct grammar, diction, verbosity, and muddied or unclear passages. Usually people who make grammatical mistakes do so consistently, using comma splices for example; take the time to explain the problem explicitly. Next there are organizational comments: ideas out of order at various scales from clauses through sentences and paragraphs to sections and chapters; redundancy; irrelevant content; missing arguments.

Comments on content are harder to characterize. You may suggest extensions to the author’s ideas, things to think about, errors, potential problems, expressions of admiration. “You ought to read X because Y” is always a useful comment.

In requesting comments on a paper, you may wish to specify which sorts are most useful. For an early draft, you want mostly comments on content and organization; for a final draft, you want mostly comments on details of presentation. Be sure as a matter of courtesy to to run the paper through a spelling corrector before asking for comments.

You don’t have to take all the suggestions you get, but you should take them seriously. Cutting usually improves it.

Getting your papers published counts. This can be easier than it seems. Basically what reviewers for publications look for is a paper that (a) has something new to say and (b) is not broken in some way. Standards are often lower than you think. This is exacerbated by the inherent randomness of the reviewing process. So one heuristic for getting published is to keep trying. Here are some more:

Make sure it is readable. Papers are rejected because they are incomprehensible or ill-organized as often as because they don’t have anything to say.

Circulate drafts for a while before sending it in to the journal. Get and incorporate comments. Resist the temptation to hurry a result into publication; there isn’t much competition in AI, and publication delays will outweigh draft-commenting delays anyway.

Read some back issues of the journal or conference you are submitting to to make sure that the style and content of your paper are appropriate to it.

Most publications have an “information for authors,” a one page summary of what they want. Read it.

Most of academic and research success is just doing your homework. Only, when you grow up, the first assignment for each homework project is figuring out what your homework assignments ought to be. Your PhD will help you. Being able to read and follow directions, and listening to what others say/write in your field is often all it takes to become a competent professional “X” (you fill in the blank).

Papers get rejected – don’t get dejected.

Failure is the key to success.

Learning from failure breeds success and divergent thinking. If you DON’T sometimes feel like what you’re working on might be a total waste of time, a dead end, or turning into a complex mess of mind-boggling proportions, you are not innovating. Research is the act of pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, even what’s possible to be conceived, a little farther. Don’t waste your time retracing well-worn paths in your field, because there will be  few stones left unturned to peek under.

Like all else in research, paper writing always takes a lot longer than you expect. Papers for publication have a particularly insidious form of this disease, however. After you finally finish a paper, you send it in for publication. Many months later it comes back with comments, and you have to revise it. Then months after that the proofs come back for correction. If you publish several forms of the paper, like a short conference version and a long journal version, this may go through several rounds. The result is that you are still working on a paper years after you thought you were through with it and after the whole topic has become utterly boring. This suggests a heuristic: Don’t do some piece of research you don’t care for passionately on the grounds that it won’t be hard to get a publication out of it: the pain will be worse than you expect.


screen-shot-2012-04-28-at-14-08-121If you’re ready to rethink how you ought to train yourself to think about and solve problems, read what Sir Ken Robinson says about Changing Education Paradigms.


13 thoughts on “The Secret Paper Passing Network in Science and Beyond

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