writing

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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Tuesday, April 17, 2019

The results above all else

At the 2019 EAU meeting in Berlin, Dr. Francesco Montorsi, the Editor-in-Chief of the journal European Urology, gave some good tips to aspiring authors.

Study design and rationale
He notes that “the design of the study is very often the key element leading to acceptance or rejection of the manuscript.” In clinical science, if you want to publish a paper that will impact your field of study, do a prospective study. As Montorsi notes: “prospective studies always generate data that are cleaner, more precise and more interesting than retrospective studies.”

Any paper should have a clear rationale for the study which is supported by good experimental design. These in turn are validated by the use of appropriate methods to address the study question. These three elements — rationale, experimental design, and methods — should be clearly communicated to the reader.

The results are everything
The heart of any paper is the results. These must be clearly and logically laid out for the reader. The results must be supported by a solid study design and appropriate methods. For this reason, I always recommend authors write the Results section first (Montorsi also suggests this).

Lay out your figures and tables in a logical order. Include a rationale for every experiment that fits within the overall study design. Explain the key findings. Describe the trends for the reader – don’t leave it to them to figure out (ie, do not say “the PFS in group A was 63% and in group B was 44%”, say “the PFS was higher in group A [63%] than group B [44%]”). Convince the reader that your results are valid (ie they are supported by a solid methodology) and that they are important.

Then you can go ahead and write the rest of the paper. Keep the introduction and discussion directly relevant to the results you obtained. Montorsi says that the Introduction section is the part of the paper which must capture the reviewers attention, but I do not agree. You can do this with the abstract.

Write the abstract last. Remember it the first thing someone will read (and all that most people will only ever read). Make the abstract clear and convincing to build anticipation in the reviewers mind that your study is interesting and worth publishing, and
to eventually entice people to read the rest of the paper.

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Thursday, February 22, 2019

Writing guides online

The Science and Development Network website has a short guide to writing a scientific paper, with a basic outline of the process and a few tips. More interesting is their section on submitting a paper
which is written by Maxine Clark who is executive editor of Nature. She provides a good overview of the process of preparing and submitting a paper for publication, with some sound advice, such as:

“However careful and beautiful the presentation, a paper will not be published unless it has a clear, sound conclusion.”

Maxine also runs a blog for any author who aspires to publish in Nature.

Nature provides some good advice for authors writing a paper for a Nature journal. They repeatedly emphasise the need for clear, simple writing that catches the readers attention. For example:

“We encourage authors to “unpackage” concepts and to present their findings and conclusions in simply constructed sentences.”

They provide links to some writing resources, including the online guide that I have written. It is free, and one of the most comprehensive online. It is complemented by an email newsletter that expands on many of the important points and gives many practical examples.

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Tuesday, February 6, 2019

The burden of communicating

As science becomes increasingly globalised, a failure to successfully communicate the significance of your work may leave you increasingly marginalised, both intellectually and perhaps financially.

Two recent reports in Nature highlight the burden that communication in English can place on researchers who speak English as a second language, and the possible risks of failing to communicate well.

Jazz up your website, change your name
In a letter to Nature Masao Ito and Thorsten Wiesel suggest that Japanese researchers are mostly not internationally visible. This low international profile prejudices them in potential international collaborations and funding.

The authors cite the example of the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) which funds many international projects in the life sciences. The HFSP scans search engines and publication databases regularly to identify possible collaborators and reviewers of grant applications. This process is less likely to find Japanese scientists because they have “a lack of international visibility” due to poorly organised and accessible lab websites, and frequently similar names and initials.

They give some practical advice on how to raise the profile of your website, but stop short of suggesting you change your name if you are hard to find on medline.

You could consider just giving yourself an additional first name. If a Dr. T. Suzuki took ‘Xanadu’ as her second name to become ‘T.X. Suzuki’, a medline search would go from almost 10,000 items to her papers alone!

If you do not have access to Nature articles, you can read the full article in the Nautilus blog.

Becoming ‘English only’
Another article published this month in Naturejobs discusses the burden on non-native English speaking scientists of having to write and present in English. Quoting Japanese and Korean researchers, the story suggests that the sheer time it takes to learn and write English reduces productivity in the lab. Furthermore, proficiency in English can give a researcher a certain caché that can actually have a real impact on a career within their own national context, and conversely poor ability in English can hamper career advancement.

What interested me was the arguments given by researchers from Japan to Korea to Spain for the importance of researchers continuing to communicate their work in their own language. This may be particularly important to keep technicians well-informed, and to keep up public interest in research.

The duty to communicate

The bottom line is that every researcher, whether English speaker or not, has the responsibility to communicate their results to both to their scientific peers, and to anyone else who may be interested in their work.

In my experience as a writer about science and medicine, it is scientists and physicians in the US who are perhaps most aware of this need. They consistently present their data at meetings in a professional and engaging manner, and their institutions often provide press releases and support for any interested journalists.

Yes, they have the major advantage of English. But in the end, the responsibility to communicate results rests with each researcher, and they must do whatever it takes to be heard and understood. For a scientist in Japan this may mean struggling to prepare a talk in English for an international conference, but may also involve writing a review or commentary in Japanese for their home audience. And if they are about to publish key results, it may mean press releases in both Japanese and English, that include a link to their well-organised bilingual website.

What is your experience? If English is mandated in your institute to what degree does the institute provide training and support? I would be interested in any comments readers had.

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Thursday, February 1, 2019

Getting published

Competition to publish in the best journals is very tough. Science says “we are able to publish only a small fraction of the manuscripts we receive.” The Lancet rejects 90% of the 10,000 manuscripts submitted each year before peer review.

This becomes an even greater challenge for anyone whose first language is not English. Your manuscript can be rejected on the basis of poor English alone. But even native English speakers make common mistakes that make their papers confused and hard to read.

Clear language and logical explanations of results will catch the attention of readers and editors. This blog aims to help you make your manuscripts clearer and more likely to be accepted.

It is also very helpful to have a good understanding of the publishing process — how journals work, how editors think — if you want to maximise your chances of seeing your work in print. We will discuss this as well here.

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