A robot as co-author

Ok, I’ll bite. The internet is literally full of fancy people jumping on the bandwagon called ‘ChatGPT’. The amount of lists I’ve seen floating by with ‘you are only using 1% of ChatGPTs full potential’ or ‘this is how I convinced the queen to marry me by using ChatGPT and so can you’ cannot be counted. But the thing is: we HAVE to talk about it. As this thing is a game changer (whether a big or a small game changer I leave open to discussion).

The potential applications for ChatGPT are numerous, but – let’s be honets – it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not as good as it looks for many questions you could ask it. Despite the opportunities it presents, there are also risks to consider. I have gained *some* insight on the tool and its appropriate usage now, and I wanted to share my perspective as an ecologist and lab leader.

First of all, it is important to note – as many have done before – that ChatGPT should not be used to write academic papers. Despite its ability to generate coherent introductions, deeper analysis of the text reveals a lack of credibility and depth. The tool lacks the capability to cite credible sources and often creates made-up papers as a result. It is thus unlikely that a thesis written by the robot would pass scrutiny: the introduction might sound good enough, but for the methods and results, and any depth in the discussion, they are still entirely on their own.

I know some of these people, but never ever have I published in Enviornmental Modelling & Software. So Veraverbeke, Bauwens & Muys, time to get writing!

Despite its limitations, ChatGPT can be a powerful tool when used correctly. Here are a few ways I have found it useful in my work:

  • Improve first drafts. Using ChatGPT to improve first drafts can be an effective way to save time and improve the overall quality of writing. By quickly jotting down ideas and creating a rough storyline, I can then feed this rough text through ChatGPT to improve sentence structure and coherence. This added step allows me to focus on refining and polishing the content, rather than spending time on correcting grammar and sentence flow. The ability to quickly identify and incorporate the good suggestions while discarding the bad ones, has significantly reduced the time and effort required to finalize my writing. Additionally, this approach ensures that the grammar and flow of sentences are already on point when I start polishing things myself, which ultimately leads to a polished and well-written final draft.
  • Ask it to change the tone of text. Why settle for plain and boring text when you can jazz it up with a little help from ChatGPT? By using it to change the tone of your text, you can add some pizzazz to your blog posts and tweets. ChatGPT can even serve as your personal brainstorming buddy, suggesting intriguing snippets of text and clever wordplay to make your writing more attractive. And while I can’t say I use the final version it proposes, I do like to sneakily steal a few improvements here and there. So next time you’re struggling to add a touch of personality to your writing, don’t be afraid to turn to ChatGPT for a little inspiration. (Ok, I admit, all the witty wordplay is entirely ChatGPTs-doing, this paragraph was significantly more boring!)
  • Shortening texts: I asked ChatGPT to suggest how to shorten a project proposal from 8 to 4 pages. It came up with great suggestions to regroup or rewrite sentences in a more compact way, which also helps with email writing and other types of writing that need to be concise.
  • Annotate R-code. This is a relatively new discovery for me, but I think it will be a GREAT tool for my students! I just feed in a piece of R-code and ask it to annotate it, and it writes down in text what all the steps mean. For students, who are often unfamiliar with many of the tips and tricks of R that I learned over the years, this can make R-code I sent them a lot easier to understand.
  • Suggesting formatting for things I am not familiar with writing: For example, I haven’t written too many recommendation letters yet, so I ask ChatGPT for an example by feeding it some keywords for the candidate in question. This gets rid of the ’empty page’-issue where you don’t know how to start writing and lets you build on a good foundation.

My final words are perhaps the most important part of this blogpost: we HAVE to discuss this tool with our students. They are more tech-savvy then we are, so they will find out about it. Yet they might not get all the pro’s and cons, and they might especially brush over the ethics. Can they use it? Sure, I’m all in favour of getting all the help one can, the main goal of their work (in their master or PhD thesis, mind you, not in other courses) in my opinion is anyway to advance science and grow as a human in the process. They can use whatever tool they want, be it a fancy and expensive measurement tool or a chatty robot. As long as they know the strengths and weaknesses. That’s the same for that fancy measurement tool for that matter.

It’s a common question – is the text I’ve written still mine when I’ve utilized a language model like ChatGPT? I firmly believe it is. While the model may offer suggestions, I ultimately have the final say on what to include or not. Think of it as having a co-author, one who carefully reads and offers suggestions, but it’s ultimately up to me to decide what makes the final cut.

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