Tag Archives: paper writing

Waifs and strays – those papers nobody cites (or reads?)

I guess, like most, if not all of us, who publish papers, we hope that not only will our papers be read, but that they will be cited by others, not just ourselves.  From a purely practical point, it is after all, how academics impress promotion boards or prospective employers. From a more personal point of view, the papers we publish represent a lot of effort, not just in gathering the data or having the idea, but also the nightmare of turning it into deathless prose and then the battle with editors and reviewers.  We all have a few papers that we hope will make our name and perhaps become a citation classic, although as Stephen Heard has pointed out not just once, but twice, our favourites are not always everyone else’s, with some papers significantly failing to meet expectations.  A recent article in Times Higher Education, showed that in some disciplines, notably in the arts, 77% of papers were still uncited five years after publication and even in the sciences, about 40% of papers suffered a similar fate.  For ecologists, the hot area is ecological modelling, with only 6% of papers remaining uncited after five years. As someone with an advanced case of imposter syndrome, this is really quite reassuring; although I have twelve papers that are uncited (according to Web of Science), they only represent 6% of my output (and I am not a modeller 😊), of which only one dates back to 2012 (0.5%).  I do, however, have another 34 papers, that although they have been cited, have been cited fewer than five times, 17% of my output, or, if I add in my never been cited papers, 23% of my work has had relatively little impact on the ecological and entomological world.

Despite this, I was curious about what, if anything, these unwanted (=uncited) waifs and strays had in common, and how they differed from my most cited papers; absolutely nothing to with the fact that Stephen Heard only had four zero papers, all of which were recent papers 😊 In Steve’s analysis he looked at time since publication and found a positive correlation, his oldest papers had accrued the most citations.  I have a somewhat larger corpus of work than Steve, so concentrated my analysis on my top twenty papers.  There was absolutely no relationship (Figure 1), all pretty much of a muchness apart from the massive outlier, but even with that removed, still nada.

Figure 1. My top twenty papers.  The massive outlier is my single Annual Review of Entomology paper.

My least cited papers, do however, show a relationship between years since publication and the paltry number of citations that they have received (Figure 2).

Figure 2. The foot of the table papers.

If I combine the two data sets and leave out my star paper, there is a relationship between time since publication and the number of citations gained (Figure 3), so I expect, but I could be wrong, and I am not going to invest the time in finding out, that if I analysed all my papers that there would be a similar relationship as that shown by Steve’s analysis.

Figure 3. Relationship between time since publication and number of citations accrued for my most and least cited papers (excluding the massive outlier).

So, what makes a paper a waif, or reversing the question, a star?  Editors, of which I am one, are great fans of Reviews, believing, usually correctly, that they garner a lot of Impact Factor points, authors perhaps less so, as they tend to take away citations from your other papers. After all, who writes a review without citing themselves? 😊 The other thing that helps a paper get cited is their title, Andrew Hendry over on Eco-Evo Evo-Eco suggests that two main factors come into play. The first is that those papers that have a very good “fill in the box” titles are much more likely to be cited than those with more specific titles. He points out that a paper he and colleagues published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of Biology paper is the only one in the literature with Eco-Evolutionary Dynamics being the sole words in the title so, any paper writing about eco-evolutionary dynamics can use that citation to “fill in the citation box” after their first sentence on the topic.  The second inflation factor he cites, is that citations beget citations. When “filling in the box”, authors tend to cite papers that other authors used to fill in the same box.  In other words, authors tend to be lazy and use what other people have cited in their introductions.  This is not something to be encouraged, as it can lead to people being wrongly attributed; I have raged against this practice in the past.  Stephen Heard over at Scientist See Squirrel reckons that his most original papers are cited less because they report research from “outside the box” and most people are working “inside the box”.  Dorothy Bishop over at Bishopblog suggests that the best way to bury your work is to put it in a book chapter in an edited book.

So, what about my stars and strays?  My most cited paper is indeed a review, and for an entomologist, being in that most prestigious of review journals, the Annual Review of Entomology, it is no surprise to me that it tops my top ten chart, with just over 1000 cites.  Incidentally, number 4 (Leather et al., 1999) and number 7 (Leather et al., 1989) in my top 10, are also reviews.  My second most cited paper (Leather, 1988), is also, I guess, a review of sorts, albeit very short, although I prefer to think of it as more of a synthesis cum speculation paper.

What about the duds, those that no-one cites, not even me.  If I ignore the most recent papers, those published this year (2018) and last 2017), as being unlikely to have had time to be read, let alone cited, then all my zero papers are either editorials or commentary papers (e.g. Leather, 2014).  Don’t let yourself be fooled by the hope that a commentary paper, even with a sexy title and published in a top-notch journal will get cited.  My effort in Journal of Animal Ecology in early 2015 being a prime example, even the magic words, “climate change” failing to elicit a single citation to date (Leather (2015).

It is hard to see a pattern in my other lesser cited papers, they don’t seem to be markedly different from my more frequently cited papers, being published in my usual journals and covering the same subject matter, aphids, agricultural and forest pests and biological control in the main.  I confess to being very disappointed in the low number of citations to my aphid cannibalism paper (Cooper et al., 2014) especially as it got a lot of media attention, but I guess it falls into the too original box, not many people work on aphid cannibalism 😊

Sadly, it seems that Steve Heard is right, despite the journal blurbs, we don’t value originality, and the message for both journal editors and authors, is clear, if you want citations, publishing reviews and sticking to well ploughed fields is the safest bet.

References

Cooper, L.C., Desjonqueres, C. & Leather, S.R. (2014) Cannibalism in the pea aphid, Acyrthosiphon pisum. Insect Science, 21, 750-758.

Leather, S.R. (1988) Size, reproductive potential and fecundity in insects – things aren’t as simple as they seem. Oikos, 51, 386-389.

Leather, S.R. (2014: Modifying glucosinolates in oilseed rape – Giamoustaris & Mithen (1995): a top-twenty paper in the Annals of Applied Biology. Annals of Applied Biology, 164, 318-319.

Leather, S.R. (2015) Title: Onwards and upwards – aphid flight trends follow climate change. Journal of Animal Ecology, 84, 1-3.

Leather, S.R., Walters, K.F.A. & Dixon, A, F.G. (1989) Factors determining the pest status of the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum-padi (L) (Hemiptera, Aphididae), in Europe – a study and review.  Bulletin of Entomological Research, 79, 345-360.

Leather, S.R., Day, K.R. & Salisbury, A.N. (1999) The biology and ecology of the large pine weevil, Hylobius abietis (Coleoptera: Curculionidae): a problem of dispersal? Bulletin of Entomological Research, 89, 3-16.

 

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When frustration becomes serendipitous – My second most cited paper

For most of the 1980s and the early 1990s I worked for the UK Forestry Commission as a research and advisory entomologist. As a civil servant I was subjected to a lot more rules than I am now as a university academic. The most frustrating set of rules in my mind, were those associated with publishing papers. The initial consultation with a statistician before your experiment was planned and any subsequent collaboration with the analysis was very sensible, and I had no problems with that part of the process at all. Our statisticians were very good in that they helped you decide the analysis but expected you to learn GenStat (the Forestry Commission standard statistics programme) and do it yourself unless you were really stuck.

The next bit was the frustrating part. When it came to writing papers you first submitted your paper to your line manager. They then read your paper, very frustrating indeed for me, as my immediate boss considered papers a very low priority and it could be several months before he got around to passing it back with comments and suggestions. Then it was passed to a member of one of the other department such as silviculture, tree breeding or pathology for them to read and make comments. The idea behind this being that it helped make the paper accessible to a wide audience, again a good idea. The problem at this stage was that once again your paper was likely to be a low priority, so yet more delay. Once that was done you then had to submit your paper to the Chief Research Office for him to read and comment on, so once again yet more delay. This meant that quite often it was a year before you actually were able to submit your paper to a journal, which could be deeply frustrating to say the least.

Frustrated

In 1986 a new journal to be published by the British Ecological Society was announced, Functional Ecology. In those days, the dreaded Impact Factors had not yet raised their ugly heads, and one tended to publish in journals relevant to your discipline, or, as in this case, the fancy took you.  I thought it would be cool to publish in the first issue of the first volume of this new journal.  I therefore set to work, with the help of one of our statisticians to produce a paper about life history parameters of the pine beauty moth, from a more ecological point of view and not from the more applied view-point of it as a forest pest (my job remit). I was very proud of the paper and confess to having got somewhat carried away in the discussion, so much so, that it was suggested by all who read it in the very lengthy internal appraisal process, that most of the discussion should be cut as being too far away from the main story. As the process had taken so long already I decided to go with the flow and eventually submitted my paper about a year after first writing it, incidentally giving my statistician a co-authorship. It was accepted and did indeed appear in the first volume of Functional Ecology, albeit the last of the year (Leather & Burnand, 1987)! It has to date (14th October 2015) being cited 53 times, by no means a disgrace, but certainly not my second-most cited paper.

I mentioned earlier that I was really proud of my discussion and I decided that I was going to publish it regardless. I reworked it slightly and submitted it to Oikos as a Forum piece, taking the calculated risk of not submitting it through the official Forestry Commission system. My reasoning was, that a), it was unlikely to be read by anyone in the Forestry Commission, being a very ecological journal, and b), if challenged I would say that it had already been seen by the powers that be, albeit not officially. To my relief it was accepted as is (Leather, 1988) and my immediate boss never mentioned it. To my surprise and delight this is now my second-most cited paper, having so far acquired 207 citations and still picks up a reasonable number of cites every year. I guess that I should actually be grateful to all those internal referees who insisted that I cut my discussion down so drastically.

References

Leather, S.R. (1988) Size, reproductive potential and fecundity in insects: Things aren’t as simple as they seem. Oikos, 51, 386-389.

Leather, S.R. & Burnand, A.C. (1987) Factors affecting life-history parameters of the pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea (D&S): the hidden costs of reproduction. Functional Ecology, 1, 331-338.

 

Post script

In case you wondered, my most cited paper is an Annual Review paper, written with one of my former PhD students, Caroline Awmack, and now has almost a thousand citations (994 as of today).

Reference

Awmack, C. S. &Leather, S. R. (2002). Host plant quality and fecundity in herbivorous insects. Annual Review of Entomology 47, 817-844.

 

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Distant Elephants and Low-Hanging Fruit – confessions of a procrastinator

very-small-lephant

verb; procrastinate – delay or postpone action; put off doing something

I hate writing full-blown grant applications. The thought of sitting down with a blank page in front of me, and justifying why I want to do the research, saying how well it fits the remit of the research council, demonstrating how great I am (track record of applicant), articulating my hypotheses, outlining the work packages, writing an impact statement, getting costings to draw up a budget, justifying the resources requested, and so on and so on, and all with the knowledge that there is an about 1 in 5 chance of getting funded, does not fill me with any great enthusiasm. It also takes up a huge amount of my time and to do it properly you really do need to sit down and exclude all other activities.

I also find it difficult to start writing a paper from scratch, or get to work on a new presentation;  I should, for example, be getting my plenary lecture for ENTO15 ready, but as it only May 11th and I am not speaking until September 2nd I am finding it difficult to get started on that. This is despite the fact that it was only by a superhuman effort before Christmas I got the written version submitted to Ecological Entomology on the required day (now available on Early View if you are interested).  Of course I am steadfastly ignoring the fact that I will be on holiday from July 24th until August 17th and that on my return I will be marking several MSc project reports!

small-elephant

I have several delaying (apparently according to Microsoft Word, procrastinatory doesn’t exist) tactics, or low-hanging fruits, that I can pick

Low-hanging fruit

when faced with things I don’t really like doing; I can tidy my desk,

Desk

I can go to check my aphid cultures (a very useful 800 m walk to the glasshouses), I can walk to the Postgraduate Office to check applications (450 m from my office), do a sweep round the PhD offices (also 450 m away from my office) to see how my students are doing, check my email (again and again), accept a request to review a paper, although this then necessitates writing a report 😉 , and as an Editor, I have the very useful excuse that I need to log on to the journal site to check what is happening; the list is long and can certainly fill my day.

medium-elephant

In our defence, procrastinators are actually very useful for the academic community; we are the people who agree to review papers, agree to be external examiners, sit on internal and external committees, do a lot of teaching and generally act as good citizens, although perhaps not as altruistically as our colleagues might think, after all we do have an ulterior motive.

Is there a cure?

There are things that we can do; a colleague of mine, does not open her emails on a Monday, I don’t have the will power to do this, I find it difficult enough to ignore my email for two-hour periods, which is my attempt at giving myself a chance to get really into doing some writing. Some people (those who are sociable and find it hard not to go to coffee or chat with colleagues) work from home; again this does not work for me as I then find household chores to distract me. I once went on a time management course in which the use of a daily To Do List was suggested. I dutifully began one of these but found that because of reactive tasks my proactive list just carried on to the next day and never seemed to get completed so that didn’t work for me either, but perhaps I should have said no to the reactive tasks or been less ambitions with the number of things on my To Do List? If anyone has further suggestions please let me know.

So how is that I complete anything substantial? For external tasks this is easy, I promise to deliver, and because I take my solemn promises to other people very seriously indeed, the task gets done, no matter how much I would rather not do it. Unfortunately, promises to myself I find much easier to break, so things that I regard as non-life or career-threatening, do tend to fall by the wayside.

big-elephant

 

All in all, I’m very lucky as my procrastinatory (it does exist Microsoft – see here) habits are relatively mild and surmountable, and I have managed to get this far in life without any serious failures.

There are, however, some people who procrastinate because of fear of failure, they set themselves the impossible goal of perfection (unless of course you are a gymnast or diver). This can lead to some very serious failures; for example, students who don’t answer any questions in an exam because they are afraid that their answers will be wrong and hand in a blank answer book, despite having it pointed out to them that if they don’t write anything they will definitely fail. I have also known students who find it almost impossible to hand in written work because they are afraid that it won’t be good enough, despite being told that unless I can see something I can’t help them improve it. To a non-sufferer the solution seems incredibly simple, just get out there and do something, how difficult can it be? It is, however, not simple at all, it can actually be a serious psychological problem that needs very sympathetic and supportive handling, ranging from sharing the task with a friend, colleague or even a suitably sympathetic supervisor, to professional counselling. It is not something to be dismissed lightly as an exasperating foible. Please, please remember this the next time you come across a colleague or student who persistently fails to complete tasks on time. They are not doing it on purpose.  Talk to them about the problem and address the issues sympathetically and with compassion and recommend them to seek psychological help if you feel it is necessary.
Post script

Apropos my latest attempt at writing a major grant proposal, the closing date is 17th May and given that I am writing this on the 11th May and I have, so far only written the opening paragraph of a ten page proposal, I fear that the elephant is about to arrive and trample me 😉

composite-elephant

Post post script

It amazes me how many times you hear or see, people using the word prevaricate when they mean procrastinate; they are very different in meaning and not something you would want to own up to in public. Prevaricate means to act or speak in an evasive way (for great examples listen to a politician being interviewed), which to me at least, implies dishonesty.

 

 

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Journal Editing – Why do it? Masochism, machisimo or just plain nosiness?

I have been involved in scientific journal editing since the mid-1980s when I took on the role of Editor of an in-house newsletter run by the UK Forestry Commission’s Forest Research arm, EntoPath News. This basically involved writing short articles about what was going on in Forest Research and persuading colleagues to write about their research, mainly for a lay audience. This was pretty much a home-made effort, typed up and then photocopied by members of the Typing Pool (now those were the days!). Then in 1991 I was asked if I would like to edit Antenna, the in-house journal of the Royal Entomological Society. This was a step-up – we actually had a printer, although this was in the days of cut and paste when cut and paste meant exactly that. I was sent the proofs in what were termed galleys, long sheets of printed pages, together with template pages, marked out with blue lines to indicate margins etc. I then grabbed a pair of scissors and a pot of glue and literally cut the proofs to fit the pages and then glued them on to the templates. These were then returned to the printer who in due course produced a set of page proofs which I had to check and approve and these were then returned to the printer and then finally the finished version would appear.

Antenna 1993

Nowadays of course all this has long departed and Antenna is a much glossier and electronically produced affair.

Antenna 2012

I was next asked if I would like to edit Ecological Entomology a much grander job all together and one that I did from 1996-2003.

Ecological Entomology 2001

 

When I first started editing Ecological Entomology, all manuscripts were submitted as hard copy paper versions (usually three copies) but with an accompanying floppy disc. The review process involved posting out the hard copy to possible reviewers, usually without any preliminary enquiry as to the willingness of the referee to undertake the task, although as time passed we did start to ask referees beforehand by email. The use of paper copies enabled referees to write directly on to manuscripts and also allowed me as an Editor to mark required changes. My Editorial Assistant also imposed stylistic and language change to manuscripts. Accepted manuscripts were always returned with a huge amount of mark-up for authors to attend to and incorporate into their finished version which was returned on disc together with a paper copy. It was quite interesting to see how many authors were so enamoured of their original version that they tried to pull the wool over my editorial eye by returning an appropriately edited paper version but their original manuscript on the disc! These were most severely edited by my Editorial Assistant 😉

I then had a couple of years off as a full editor but remained on the boards of Ecological Entomology, Journal of Animal Ecology and Agricultural & Forest Entomology, all of which I still do despite becoming one of the Senior Editors of the Annals of Applied Biology in 2005 and in a moment of weakness not only agreeing to become the Editor-in-Chief of Insect Conservation & Diversity in 2006, but to launch it from scratch!

One of my conditions for agreeing to edit Insect Conservation & Diversity was that we would be on-line submission from Day One. Interestingly enough we were the only journal of the Royal Entomological Society’s large stable that were. This year the last of the journals finally gave in and became on-line submissions only.

One of the things that I have noticed with most of the journals that were originally paper-based submissions is that the instructions for authors still refer back to the paper submission days – why for example do we need to upload tables and figures separately – why don’t we just incorporate them in the text in the way they would appear in print and submit one file? Old habits die hard I guess.

So why do I edit journals? The simplest answer is because I enjoy it, I find it interesting, albeit sometimes frustrating, especially when authors send you papers that are completely out of the scope of the journal, or formatted in the style of the journal they have just been rejected by! You also find out that some papers come with a referee repellent attached to them. Some papers you get the right number of referees agreeing immediately, others that look perfectly acceptable often take ten or eleven referee requests before you get your two referees.   I have written about the search for referees before so will not dwell on this part of the editing process. On the plus side you get the chance to read things that you might not do normally and, by judicious choice of your editorial board can influence the papers that are submitted to your journal.

How hard is it to be a journal editor? Not as hard as you might think. We certainly don’t do the same job that we used to; the red pen is a thing of the past. To a certain extent we act as filters, deciding which papers we are going to send on to our Associate Editor, so we do have to read everything that is submitted, although some are very easy to ‘instant reject’ and need little more than a cursory skim. The harder ones are those that are perfectly sound but don’t have the right feel for the journal, the ones that you know are going to be rejected but which are perfectly publishable, just not in your journal. In some of these cases you might have to pass it on to an Associate Editor, as with the best will in the world you can’t be an expert in everything.   The Associate Editors choose the referees and make a recommendation to you as the Editor; you then have to read the paper again and see if you agree with his/her recommendation. As an Editor you have to be tougher than your Associate Editors because of space requirements and the fear of a fall in your Impact Factor or submission rate. When I first started editing, Impact Factor was not a consideration; now we are, despite our belief that it is an imperfect metric, all aiming to be the best. We also have pressures from the publishers to increase the speed of our decision-making processes which is why the decision ‘reject and resubmit’ is now becoming increasingly common and ‘major revision’ less common.

Rejections can sometimes result in not only angry emails from rejected authors but also, but not that often, disgruntled Associate Editors. When I first started editing I was more prone to backing down when contacted by an author demanding a recount, especially if it was someone who I knew quite well. I soon learnt though that if you stood your ground firmly it was better for you and the authors, as they were all too often rejected after another round of reviewing. Your friends generally understand this quite soon and as professionals realise that you have to be impartial. That said, I did find it very hard when I found myself rejecting a paper submitted by my old PhD supervisor. He appears to have forgiven me 😉

Do we get paid as editors? It depends on the journal; some pay a fairly generous stipend, but remember most of your editing takes place at home and at weekends, so some compensation is appropriate. The Royal Entomological Society journals don’t pay their editors but do treat them very well and pay for travel to some conferences and meet their registration and accommodation costs at most of their own conferences.

So what qualities are needed to be a journal editor? A thick skin, the ability to make a decision and not to keep asking for yet another opinion; you’re the final arbiter, make that decision and stick with it; the detachment to be impartial and go with the science not with your own personal prejudices or friendships. You also need to be aware of what other journals are doing and be constantly thinking of ways to improve your journal; it is very tempting to think that everything is fine so why change things. Personally I feel that an Editor should step down after about seven years or so as there is a tendency to get very parochial and stuck in a rut. You can definitely get very possessive about ‘your’ journal if you are not careful. [Note to self, I have edited Insect Conservation & Diversity for almost eight years now and I have had an approach from another journal, but I would really miss those Royal Entomological Society Publication Committee meetings ;-)]

Do I regret being an Editor?  Not one little bit. It is actually a great job and one that I can thoroughly recommend to anyone who is offered the chance.

Post script

Apropos of my mention of submitting paper copies to journals, I do feel that authors do not get the same amount of feedback from referees as they used to. Referees who take the time to download a pdf version and annotate and comment directly are definitely in the minority. This means that most referees only comment on the scientific details and all those helpful hints about punctuation and style are omitted. As a referee I do sometimes make suggestions for rewording and overall grammatical suggestions, but line by line editing which I used to do is now a thing of the past.

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The Three Rs of Science – Reading, Writing and Reviewing

And before anyone jumps in and says there are 4Rs in Science i.e. Reading, Research, Writing and Reviewing, I am including research as part of writing as without research you would have nothing to write about.  This post is mainly about writing for publication as I have written about refereeing and reading in earlier posts.  Almost twenty-five years ago I designed and implemented a scientific paper writing class for the undergraduate course that I used to run at Imperial College; later I re-tooled it as part of our postgraduate training programme and it was later rolled out across the university graduate school as part of the Doctoral Training Programme.

The first question I would ask students was “Why do scientists write papers?”  Undergraduates usually responded that scientists wrote to tell the world and their peers about what research they had done and thus advance science and prevent duplication of effort.  My response to this was that if they really wanted to publicise their research and make it accessible to the world they would publish their work in the popular press which has a lot more reach than a scientific journal.  After a bit of prodding they would then decide that perhaps it was for peer recognition and subsequent scientific validation via the review process.  Postgraduate students reached this stage more quickly and also understood that they needed to publish to make their cvs competitive and also of course to stake a claim to a particular research area to help with obtaining funding.

The first step in this journey is to do some good science!  Before setting out on the publication trail I also think that one should ask yourself if your work is important, although of course this is pretty subjective.  I am sure that all of us if asked, would consider that what we do is important enough to be published.  Next ask yourself if the experimental design or methodology is sound and if the work has been done well.  This will save time and remove some of the pain likely to be met during the review process.  Most importantly, at least in my opinion, is to ask yourself if there is a story.  There needs to be a strong narrative if you want to get people to read and cite your paper.

As a first time author you definitely need to ask advice about who does what, where you will send your paper and it is usually a good idea to get some agreement on authorship order earlier and not later.  Even as an experienced author I think that this sort of discussion can be very useful.  At the very least it will help you decide what particular slant your story will have.

Remember, have a clear story to tell and also remember that complexity is not the same as learning; keep your language simple, concise, precise and incisive and even at this early stage, make sure you follow the journal style!

At this point in the course I would put up this table and ask the students what each column represented.

Paper table

They would quickly guess that the first column represented the traditional layout of a scientific paper.  The other two columns took a bit longer, especially for the undergraduates until I asked them how they read papers when gathering material for their assignments and they were then able to identify the third column as how they, and most of us tend to read papers.  If the title seems interesting then we read the abstract, zip down to the results, see what the authors said about them, then check the introduction and then check the references for follow-up literature.  Methods and materials usually trail in at the end and then only if you have some doubts about what the authors have said or if you want to do something similar.  Then you look at the results again and you might look at the acknowledgements to see where they got their funding and to guess how many times they had to revise the paper (how many anonymous referees they acknowledge).

The middle column represents how most of us now write papers especially in these days of cut and paste. We follow the line of least resistance, start with the title to give us a starting point, our methods should have been written already in our lab books, the results come next and then we get on to the harder bits, the Introduction and the Discussion; acknowledgements flow logically from this and then it is a matter of adding the references and perhaps the hardest bit of all, the abstract or summary.    By the time you have done all this, your initial title almost certainly will no longer appeal to you so you come up with something new and more fitting.

Although this tends to be how we write papers I am not sure that it is actually the best way.  In the days before personal PCs some of us had access to typing pools and even if we didn’t, we either wrote our first drafts in long-hand or at a typewriter.  This meant that we got all our material together, had a long think about what we wanted to say and actually started at the beginning and worked our way through the paper in the same order as it would be printed.  Some people argue that this meant that ‘flow’ of those papers was smoother and more coherent.  I don’t think I know anyone who actually writes like that anymore, but I am happy to be contradicted.

Regardless of the fact that most of us live in a cut and paste world I am going to work through the various bits of a paper in the usual printed order.  Remember you are telling a story and there are a lot of rival authors out there competing for space in the top journals and you have to convince the journal editor and two or three referees that your paper is the one that should see the light of day in their journal.

You need a title; ideally it should be short, snappy and very importantly informative, although perhaps not too informative.  In the course I ran, I presented this to the students as a somewhat tongue in cheek example;

The effect of two lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta Douglas ex Loudon) seed origins (South coastal and Alaskan) on the growth, survival and development of larvae of the pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea (Denis & Schiffermuller) in the presence and absence of predators in a Scottish field site.

This although informative is not necessarily going to gain you readers or publication in a high impact journal.  In fact the external pre-REF (Research Excellence Framework – UK academics will know what this is) consultant employed by my university to help decide which papers should go forward for assessment was very clear that titles beginning with The effect of were very unlikely to receive high scores by the external assessors.

As it happened, the work I had done which is very clearly described by the informative title above was actually published as

Leather & Walsh title page

Not very informative but it certainly got a readership.

The abstract is perhaps the least favourite bit of a paper for authors; I certainly find them difficult and invariably save them to last.  They are however, extremely important and according to Wiley-Blackwell, publishers of the journal that I edit (Insect Conservation & Diversity) they are much more important than we as authors realise – they and the title are the ‘hook’ that gets your paper downloaded and hopefully read and then cited.  You should thus not just rush it off in a couple of minutes.  Think hard about what you want to say and what it is that is likely to get someone to download and read your paper.

Next is the Introduction, here you should put your work in context, remembering that it is not a literature review but make sure that you do cite some of the earlier relevant work as well as the more recent literature.  State the problem clearly and indicate who else has tried and failed and why your work is special and how you have succeeded where others have failed.

Now for the Materials and methods section, which to me is the most important part of the paper.  This is where you as a referee or reviewer should go first.  This is the detail that matters.  If the methodology is flawed then it doesn’t matter how great the writing is or how fancy the statistics, the paper should be rejected.  I think it is deplorable that there are now a number of ‘high impact’ journals that have relegated the methods to a subsidiary position, almost hiding them away and placing the results at the front end of the paper.  This is tantamount to telling reviewers that the methods don’t matter, just look at the results.  I have heard however, that some of these journals are now reconsidering this policy after some embarrassing publicity.

My advice to students is that the methods should contain as much detail as would be required for someone else to repeat your work without having to contact you.  So for example, the species involved, cultivars and phenological stage of the plants used, the sample size; for field work, the site details, the equipment used but not necessarily the supplier, unless of course it is very specialist, and the statistical treatment and assumptions.

The results section is your showcase.  Decide which display method is best for the message you want to get across and then pick out the most important points from your tables and graphs and turn them into a commentary, but DO NOT discuss them.  For the figures and tables do make sure that you follow the journal style.  Make sure that the figure and table titles are informative and comprehensive; in the days before Japanese journals published in English, the only English bit of the papers were the figure and table legends and it was possible to get a very good idea of know what the paper was about from them. Keep symbols simple and check line thickness.

The Discussion section is where you discuss YOUR results, highlight the strengths and weaknesses of your approach, underline your most important results, compare them with similar data and interpret your results in the broader view.  It is always a good idea to show how you addressed your initial hypothesis.  This and the methods section are the two sections where you can try and pre-guess the reviewers and get your retaliation in first.  If you can answer the reviewers before the questions are raised in their reports it increases the chances of getting your paper accepted.

Again, DO NOT use convoluted and obscure language and do AVOID jargon and pretentious statements.  As scientists our job is to communicate, not just to our peers, but to a wider audience. Quite often the reason our results are misinterpreted by the popular press is not because they are doing it on purpose but because we have obscured what we have said by using over-complicated language.  Be clear, use simple everyday words where possible, e.g.  laid rather than oviposited and be concise.

Speaking as an Editor I like acknowledgements to be brief, but do appreciate that there are funding agencies and helpful colleagues to thank.  I would advise against too much flippancy as after all you are advertising yourself and some people do read them.

Finally, the references; are they COMPLETE? Do they follow the journal style?  Editors do check and if you have had the misfortune to be rejected by your first choice journal, it does not go down well with the Editor of your second choice journal if you haven’t made the effort to change the formatting!  Do text citations and bibliography agree?  Check and recheck!

So now are you ready to release your pride and joy into the wild to suffer “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” more commonly known as editors and referees?  Actually no, that was just the first draft!  DO NOT SUBMIT IT YET.  Pass it around for comments; if you are a PhD student your supervisor definitely needs and wants to see it!  Let colleagues read it too and for communication test, get a non-specialist to read it.  If they can understand what you did and what your central message is then you have cracked the communication barrier.  Do listen to what people say, rewrite it!!  Be brutal in revision!  It is better to revise before submission than to have your paper rejected without the chance to revise.  Pass it around again. Then and only then, log on to the journal site and start the submission process, but do remember to read the guidelines for authors before you press the submit button!

Submit button

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