It takes a village to write a scientific paper

Every scientist I know (myself included) underestimates how long it will take to write, edit, and submit a paper.  Despite having 22 publications to date, I still set laughably-high expectations for my writing deadlines.  Even though scientists go into a project with a defined hypothesis, objectives, and workflow, by the end of data analysis we often find ourselves surprised.  Perhaps your assumptions were not supported by the actual observations, sometimes what you thought would be insignificant becomes a fascinating result.  Either way, by the time you have finished most of the data analysis and exploration, you face the difficult task of compiling the results into a meaningful paper.  You can’t simply report your data without giving them context and interpretation.  I’ve already discussed the portions of scientific manuscripts and how one is composed, and here I want to focus on the support network that goes into this process, which can help shape that context that you provide to your data.

One of the best ways in which we can promote rigorous, thoughtful science is through peer-review, which can take a number of forms.  It is worth noting, that peer-review also allows for professional bullying, and can be swayed by current theories and “common knowledge”.  It is the journal editor’s job to select and referee reviewers (usually 2 – 4), to compile their comments, and to make the final recommendation for the disposition of the manuscript (accept, modify, reject).  Reputation, and personal demographics such as gender, race, or institutional pedigree can also play a role in the quality and tone of the peer-review you receive. Nevertheless, getting an outside opinion of your work is critical, and a number of procedural changes to improve transparency and accountability have been proposed and implemented.  For example, many journals now publish reviews names online with the article after it has been accepted, such that the review does not stay blind forever.

Thorough reading and editing of a manuscript takes time.  Yet peer-reviewers for scientific journals almost unanimously do not receive compensation.  It is an expected service of academics, and theoretically if we are all acting as peer-reviewers for each other then there should be no shortage.  Unfortunately, due to the pressures of the publish-or-perish race to be awarded tenure, many non-tenured scientists (graduate students, post-docs, non-tenure track faculty, and pre-tenured tenure-track faculty) are reluctant to spend precious time on any activity which will not land them tenure, particularly reviewing.  Moreover, tenured faculty also tend to find themselves without enough time to review, particularly if they are serving on a large number of committees or in an administrative capacity.  On top of that, you are not allowed to accept a review if you have a conflict of interest, including current or recent collaboration with the authors, personal relationships with authors, a financial stake in the manuscript or results, etc.  The peer-review process commonly gets delayed when editors are unable to find enough reviewers able to accept a manuscript, or when reviewers cannot complete the review in a timely manner (typically 2 – 4 weeks).

I have recently tried to solicit peer-review from friends and colleagues who are not part of the project before I submit to a journal.  If you regularly follow my blog, you’ll probably guess that one of the reasons I do this is to catch spelling and grammatical mistakes, which I pick out of other works with hawk-like vision and miss in my own with mole-like vision.  More importantly, trying to communicate my work to someone who is not already involved in the project is a great way to improve my ability to effectively and specifically communicate my work.  Technical jargon, colloquial phrasing, sentence construction, and writing tone can all affect the information and data interpretation that a reader can glean from your work, and this will be modulated by the knowledge background of the reader.

I’ve learned that I write like an animal microbiologist, and when writing make assumptions about which information is common knowledge and doesn’t need a citation or to be included at all because it can be assumed.  However, anyone besides animal microbiologists who have been raised on different field-specific common knowledge may not be familiar with the abbreviations, techniques, or terms I use.  It may seem self-explanatory to me, but I would rather have to reword my manuscript that have readers confuse the message from my article.  Even better, internal review from colleagues who are not involved with the project or who are in a different field can provide valuable interdisciplinary perspective.  I have been able to apply my knowledge of animal science to my work in the built environment, and insights from my collaborators in plant ecology have helped me broaden my approach towards both animals and buildings.

No scientific article would be published without the help of the journal editorial team, either, who proof the final manuscript, verify certain information, curate figures and tables, and type-set the final version.  But working backwards from submission and journal staff, before peer-review and internal peer-review, there are a lot of people that contribute to a scientific article who aren’t necessarily considered when contemplating the amount of personnel needed to compose a scientific article.  In fact, that one article represents just the tip of the iceberg of people involved in that science in some way; there are database curators, people developing and maintaining open-source software or free analysis programs, laboratory technicians, or equipment and consumables suppliers.  Broadening our definition of science support network further includes human resources personnel, sponsored projects staff who manage grants, building operational personnel who maintain the building services for the laboratory, and administrative staff who handle many of the logistical details to running a lab.  It takes a village to run a research institution, to publish a scientific article, to provide jobs and educational opportunities, and to support the research and development which fuels economic growth.  When it comes time to set federal and state budgets, it bears remembering that that science village requires financial support.


Featured Image Credit: Kriegeskorte, 2012

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