Are most postdocs and grad students just glorified technicians?
Math is a completely different situation, where advisors do their own research and mentor the research of others. In experimental sciences, where the advisor's job is almost entirely driving the research of others, the vast majority of grad students and even postdocs are glorified technicians. They contribute a bunch of figures and some methods and results text to the PI, but do not "write papers" in what I would consider a reasonable sense of the phrase. Only in the top 10 or so programs in the US, and their counterparts internationally, do even a majority really manage publications.
I can't say I would know. But here's what I think.
I've worked at places that are maybe in the top 20, maybe top 30, and at least one or two in the top 10.
So far as I know, most senior grad students were doing a significant portion, if not most of the writing, of their papers. Most postdocs were putting together their own manuscripts... or at least I thought they were?
Ever since my very first paper in grad school, I've been doing everything myself. My advisors have contributed edits only. Which I think is perfectly reasonable.
Having said that, though, my most recent manuscripts have gotten more edits, and more useful comments, from people who are not authors.
In fact, come to think of it, on my last few papers, the second/middle authors contributed a reagent, technical help, and/or maybe up to a paragraph of text.
None of these people made even one figure for the paper. The senior authors did even less than that.
But you wouldn't know that from looking at the author list.
So I think it's hard to know how anyone would have such a broad sampling of that kind of inside information as to be able to comment on 'the vast majority' of grad students or postdocs with regards to manuscript writing.
So far as I know, detailed documentation of actual contributions of individual authors is spotty at best (?).
It has only been recently that journals have started including specifics of author contributions at all in my field. Even now, it's not in all journals, and it's often optional or inaccurate.
Here's the kind of thing we put when it's required of us:
Professor X contributed helpful discussions of the results, and contributed to the writing and editing of the manuscript.
Here it is with the subtext revealed:
Professor X contributed (un)helpful discussions, and contributed (very little) to the writing and editing of (an earlier version) of the manuscript (and hasn't read it since, despite being given multiple drafts, junk food bribes, and a deadline).
And here's what I would have written if I were being completely honest about my advisor's contributions to my last few papers:
Professor X rewrote some of my sentences to make them run-ons. X made me use a title I hate, but the paper got in so I don't care anymore because I'm tired of fighting about it.
Professor Y did not contribute more than a few word changes, but is nevertheless an author since Y's grants funded part of the work.
Professor Z read an early draft of the paper and said it looked fine. Z is an author since the work was done in Z's lab space and we can't afford to piss him off.
What do you think, readers? Is CC right? Are math students so much more independent than we are? Is the vast majority just glorified technicians?
Or is this yet another myth being used as justification for keeping us down?
Is this why NIH gives more grant money to people over 70 than to people under 30?
Maybe we should all just quit and come back in 40 years, and see how science has progressed without us?