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Co-authoring with your supervisors

Juerong Qiu and Catherine Roberts

Co-authoring with our supervisors often fast-tracks our learning. But what is the co-authorship process like? When and how do we begin to discuss publishing? How do we map out different aspects of a thesis for different outlets? We invited A/Prof Neomy Storch to answer these burning questions and share her experience of publishing with students.

I heard that you often publish papers with your students. Recently, the paper co-authored by Yiming Liu, you and Dr Janne Morton was published on Assessing Writing. I wonder if you could briefly tell us about the usual process for publishing with your PhD students.

Publishing at least one, a maximum of two papers, with PhD students is a good way of mentoring students about publication. I mention it right at the beginning of the candidacy. Let students know that it’s out there, and it becomes more relevant towards the end. I discuss which chapters they would like to co-author. There could be one paper with each supervisor; it depends very much on each supervisor’s research expertise. Then, we set out how that process evolves. Students need to take responsibility for the first draft, and then send it to the supervisor(s). We then make comments on how to improve it and get it ready for publication.

If I reflect on my own experience publishing with my supervisor, there wasn’t an understanding back then. In fact, I didn’t publish with my supervisor. Now, it’s a lot more part of the explicit process of supervision. I think it cuts out any awkwardness. But it has to be managed carefully.

Yes. It may be pretty difficult for students to start the conversation about whose name comes first.

When I speak to students in the beginning, I say to them, your name will come first, if you do the bulk of the work. If there are two supervisors, we take the second and the third position. You can discuss it with a supervisor, and it’s not a big deal.

There are exceptions. Many years ago, when my student said to me, publication is not very important to me. His university only counted publications unrelated to his thesis. So, we agreed that I would write the first draft, and that my name goes first. We published two papers. That was the only time that the PhD student’s name did not come first. It depends on the student’s willingness to take on that responsibility of putting together that first draft.

You mentioned responsibility being important. What else is important for a PhD student to know before they get into writing for publication?

Thinking about which journals to publish in. The journal choice will impact what you focus on, as well as the style and things like word limit. It’s important to focus on the journal’s target audience. If they’re not sure about which journal to submit, I’m happy to give them advice about my own experience publishing in those journals. We have a list of three to four journals because the likelihood of getting rejected now is much higher.

Also to anticipate rejection. Journals get a lot of submissions, and I know that also from being on an editorial board in many journals. I find that I have to speak to some students quite openly about unrealistic expectations. Co-authoring with your supervisor, even if they have an established reputation, does not mean it’ll be accepted. Because the reviews are blind. The reviewers don’t know who the authors are.

What’s the common mistake you see PhD students making when they want to publish?

I think what students find the hardest – it’s not a mistake – is condensing their findings into a paper. You’ve got so many findings and themes that you need to condense. What is that you’re going to publish in that particular journal? Your PhD project can yield anywhere from two to up to seven papers. Or you may use data that you didn’t use in your thesis because you had too much data. In every paper you have a bit from the literature review, a bit from the analysis, bits from different sections. And that’s why the article may become too long. That’s why working with a supervisor is a good experience. Students could send me a paper, which is 10,000 words, and then I’ll give them feedback on what can be cut out or condensed.

Also, knowing where to pitch your paper. I had one student who was keen on getting into a top journal. The reviewers wanted many revisions, and he was reluctant to do it. Two years later, he had to send it to a second tier journal. The longer you leave it, the more out of date your paper becomes. The process takes 18 months from submission to publication. We can also advise students based on the findings. For some findings you should aim for higher ranking journals, for others aim for lower ranking journals. Sometimes it’s better to start with slightly lower ranking journals. You get the experience of publication and get your name out there.

It’s also important to work with a student when they get feedback from the journal about whether they need to revise.  Students need to know how to respond to reviewers’ comments. Students are not aware that you don’t necessarily have to accept some of the suggestions. It’s understandable that a student may lack the confidence sometimes to say, “No, I can’t do that because of X, Y, and Z.”. From my experience, if you respond to reviewers’ comments and resubmit, it has a very good chance of being accepted. So, it’s worth the effort. If it’s rejected, then you go down the list of your journals and try another one. 

Yeah, but I wonder why the editors are still willing to give writers a second chance to resubmit if major revision is required.

Editors often look at the kind of revision and whether it’s an area of interest to the readership. If they think the revision doable, or if it deals with a topic or an area which is underrepresented, they may give it a second chance. The editors also know where it’s coming from, who are the writers, and whether it can get revised properly. If it’s from a novice researcher, like a PhD student, they’re probably more lenient and willing to give them an opportunity to revise and resubmit.

What do you think makes for an effective collaboration between PhD students and their supervisors? What’s the relationship like?

It has to be a good relationship, right throughout supervision. There’s built-up trust. Clarity of expectations or the processes is important. I haven’t published with all my PhD students, because sometimes it’s too hard to convert their findings to papers. It’s rare, but it happens. But I always encourage students to publish their findings. It’s fresh eyes on your work. 

I submitted an article based on my findings when I was writing my PhD thesis, and the feedback that I got from the reviewer was invaluable. The suggestions actually changed a framework that I developed. You get advice from people who are familiar with the field, advice you don’t get from your supervisor, necessarily. You can also submit a manuscript before you submit your thesis. If you run out of time, you do it whilst you’re waiting for examiners’ evaluation.

So you said you start the conversation with your PhD students about it. If you’re a PhD student, and you want to start that conversation, how would you recommend they approach it?

I think for a PhD student, the most appropriate time is the beginning of the third year. After you’ve finished data collection, written up some of your findings, and you’re putting it together. Approach your supervisor and say, “Do you think it’s appropriate to publish these findings? Can we co-author a paper on the third chapter or other chapters?” Most supervisors will be willing.

Thank you so much for answering our questions and sharing your insights.

Thank you.