Friday, September 14, 2019

A sin to conclude?

A recent Nature Physics editorial highlights the importance of writing a clear and accessible paper that has a ‘story’. Thus, anything that does not directly add to the story should be either left out, or placed elsewhere (eg, putting details of certain methods or supporting data in Supplementary Information).

They include a few random but useful tips such as avoid clichés, use adjectives judiciously, and do not use the word ‘very’.

To the list of words to avoid I would add:

‘novel’ (almost every paper is describing something new),

‘remarkable’ (a subjective word, often mistakenly used in place of ‘marked’), and

‘paradigm’ (see article by Goodman in BMJ)

The editorial also suggests that conclusions are not always necessary. Quoting an article by Jonathan Shewchuk entitled “Three sins of authors…”, they say that if the conclusions repeat what has been said elsewhere in the paper, they are not needed.

According to the editors at Nature Physics, following the standard rule for presenting an argument in English of “tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them” makes for a sloppy paper.

I do not agree. The key to writing a paper that convinces your readers lies in the way they will read and remember a paper.

The deluge of scientific papers means most readers develop an approach to reading articles that allows them to quickly assess whether they should read the whole thing. I will discuss this in a future post, but one of the first things I read is the conclusions of a paper to see if they justify reading the rest. It is a snapshot of the key findings and implications of the work, that I can read in 10 seconds.

Furthermore, a pithy conclusion distills your work into a single nugget of information that the reader is more likely to remember.

The conclusion should also give the key implications of your findings – what do they mean, where are they leading – in a single sentence. Thus, in two or three sentences your reader knows what you found, what it means and where it is going.

One note: avoid stating the obvious “more research is indicated” in the last sentence.

And finally, for a conclusion that quietly suggests the implications of the findings, it is hard to beat that of Watson and Crick’s 1953 Nature paper:

“It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.”

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Thursday, March 22, 2019

Jazz up your journal

Fancy advertisements reminding me that “time does not wait for anything or anyone” caught my eye at the Annual Meeting of the European Association of Urology in Berlin today. They were for the EAU journal, European Urology, which has been recently revamped from what I can see.

Of interest is that they have identified a few steps to improve the quality of the journal that should be considered by any publication wanting to boost its impact factor and keep its readers in an age of open access.

The first step is have a shiny cover.

In fact, the slick platinum cover is a smart way to make a journal easily identifiable. It also helps if your journal happens to have a big name: no one calls the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine by its name – it’s just the blue journal.

Dr. Francesco Montorsi, the current Editor-in-Chief of Eur Urol, identified 3 other steps to a better journal:

1. Accelerate the review process

Don’t leave manuscripts languishing on an editor’s desk for months only to be rejected. Eur Urol claims to have a turnaround time to the first editorial decision of 16 days. This is a lower limit said Dr. Montorsi because reviewers have to get 14 days to do a review. Which leads to the second point…

2. Give reviewers credit

It could be argued that many journals have made a lot of money off the backs of reviewers doing the hardest part of the job for free.

Eur Urol seems to take them a bit more seriously. They give a “reviewer of the month” award (that can go next to the Masters 50-m Breaststroke second place trophy in the cabinet).

More seriously, the entire editorial board is drawn from the most active reviewers – “no politics involved” – and is revised each year to include only the busiest reviewers.

3. Widen the readership
Looking beyond Europe, Dr. Montorsi suggested to the Japanese Urological Association that they arrange reciprocal online access to articles between Eur Urol and the International Journal of Urology.

A slick metallic cover doesn’t hurt either.

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