Read Me (Please)

Roger Chouinard for The Chronicle

January 16, 2012

A lot of the e-mail that I get from readers of my blog involves questions such as: How do I get my (adviser, co-author, colleague) to read my (thesis, chapter, manuscript, proposal) and make useful comments in a reasonable amount of time?

As an adviser and a colleague, I could frame a very similar question for the writing of those same documents, but that situation is more complicated because it involves dealing with people's writing demons. Simply getting someone to read and comment on a document should be a simpler task.

Let me admit at the outset: I don't know how to get some of my own co-authors to read manuscripts in a reasonable amount of time, so I don't have all the answers to this perennial problem. But although I can't give you a surefire solution for all circumstances, I can mention some methods that colleagues, commenters on my blog, and I have tried.

The context of each case is important. Students don't have the same leverage as professors, at least in theory, and even peer colleagues doing collaborative research need to consider the consequences of persistent badgering and blackmail.

Let's say that you have written something of moderate length. You would like the document to be completed and submitted sooner rather than later, so that you can progress with your career, life, or whatever, but in this hypothetical case, there is no drop-dead deadline. This situation might apply to the draft of a manuscript to be submitted for review to a journal. Or the document in question could be a thesis chapter. You send it to someone (your adviser or colleague) who has to read it before you can submit the manuscript.

And then you wait.

What is a reasonable time to wait before you send the first reminder? I am going to propose a rough estimate, for discussion purposes, of two weeks. That seems reasonable in most cases, but I want to back up and say that one approach to this problem is to broach the subject in advance and either suggest a reasonable time by which you'd like to receive comments, ask what would be a reasonable time, or settle on a time through discussion. There is no guarantee that you will get comments back in the specified time, but it could relieve some of the uncertainty and potential conflict—such as if you are expecting comments back in a few days and the person reading the document thinks that a month is more reasonable.

I personally don't mind if someone sends me a document to read and asks: "When do you think you'll be able to get back to me with comments?" That's a fair question, and not at all obnoxious if phrased politely. It gives me the chance to say, "Well, since you gave this to me a week before a proposal deadline (or a conference, or some other time-consuming activity), it will likely be a month before I can get this back to you."

But let's say that more time has gone by than you think reasonable or that an agreed-on deadline has passed. What to do?

One possibility, of course, is to start with gentle reminders, such as "I was wondering if you had a chance yet to look at the (document) that I gave you on (date)." You could acknowledge the colleague's other obligations ("I know you are very busy, but ..."), and you could end the sentence softly ("I'd really appreciate your comments") or you could explain why, exactly, you want the comments sooner rather than later ("all of my other committee members have read it and provided comments, so we are just waiting for you"). Verbal reminders can be effective, but it's also good to send an e-mail so that you have a record of when you did the reminding.

And then you wait some more.

Many people will come through after a single reminder, and most of the rest after a second reminder. If you have the luxury of a month or more, you can usually get the comments that you need.

Experience, however, shows that there are some people who will not reply even to repeated, and increasingly urgent, reminders. Others keep giving you a new date by which they will respond, and then another new date, and then another. But none of those dates seem to have any meaning as deadlines; they are intended mostly to put off the one doing the pleading.

Again, circumstances matter for such difficult cases. If it's your adviser who is delinquent and your timely graduation is imperiled, you may need to call in help from other faculty members (such as members of your dissertation committee), a graduate program adviser, or the department chair. It's best to do that only if all other attempts have failed, if you inform your adviser that you are going to ask for help, and if your progress toward your degree is in danger because of your adviser's inaction. It is in the department's interest to help students graduate on time, so there should be people who can help bridge the gap between an unresponsive adviser and a desperate student. I know that some departments don't work that way, but I see increasing awareness of such problems in my particular corner of academe.

If it's a colleague who is delinquent in returning comments on a manuscript, then you have to decide whether to move forward without that person's input—giving fair warning that you intend to do so by a certain date, and with a clear explanation of the consequences for the co-authorship (if it is up to you to make that decision). Such conflicts can be more difficult for early-career researchers to deal with, especially if they are unsure about what the possible solutions are. If possible, senior colleagues should intervene in such disputes.

I found myself in that very situation many years ago, but fortunately, I had a detailed record of my attempts over the course of nearly a year to get a response from an extraordinarily unresponsive colleague. When I removed him from the project and he threatened to write letters to everyone from my department chair to the journal editors, I sent him a copy of his record of unresponsiveness, and he went back into his cave.

I was fortunate, as a student and as a postdoc, not to have that same problem with any of my advisers. But it is not uncommon to have to deal with some form of this issue in collaborative research projects. In my experience, most people will come through after a bit of polite prodding. Even so, the extreme cases happen often enough, and there is no easy solution to those situations, especially if you try to deal with them on your own.

The worst problems arise, of course, when there is a drop-dead deadline and you are the one who will be harmed if it isn't met. Your only hope is to get some allies, find a way to make the nonresponders accountable for their inaction, and limit your contact with them as much as possible in the future.

Female Science Professor is the pseudonym of a professor in the physical sciences at a large research university who blogs under that moniker and writes our Catalyst column. Her blog is at