I have a load of mates that are scientists. They are good people and good fun. They toil away with their pipettes hoping to unravel the mysteries of life. When their computer models spit out the same result as their squillion-petri-dish 6-month-long lab extravaganza, the parties can be legendary.
It is all deeply fascinating and deeply rewarding. Ok, sometimes conversations can get a little erm… geeky, but I’ll forgive them for that. I guess it comes with the game.
Time and again though it all ends in tears when they come to write it up. I’ve seen it from the very beginning, ever since I wandered into university. I’ve seen it happen with undergrads, postgrads, postdocs, professors, the lot. The frustration, annoyance and time spent over writing up and trying to publish scientific papers is epic beyond doubt.
I have never understood this. Writing about science, in my mind, is a simple exercise in logical thinking, good planning and perhaps a drop of patience.
‘We did this to A, compared it to B, and the result was C (p=0.012). This is significant because A is ten times (p=0.026) cheaper/quicker/faster/more effective/beautiful/whatever than currently available drug/method/treatment B.’
The resulting paper would then be an exercise of saying what you are going to report and why it is important (the introduction), what you did (the methods), what the result is (need I say it?) and finally what you think the significance of the result is (the discussion).
Add an abstract, a list of references, a decent title, thank all the people that need thanking, and send it off to an appropriately titled journal and you’re done.
After a couple of rounds of back and forth with the editor and referees, your paper graces the pages of your favourite journal, you can crack open the plonk and you are safe in the knowledge that you are one step closer to academic glory and tenure.
Should be simple, right?
Wrong. Time and again ridiculous stories emerge about the machinations of the scientific publishing system and the frustrations, whether justified or not, that go with this territory.
The problems are numerous and cost us billions because the scientific publishing model has some issues.
Many scientists openly admit that they have reams of data that “could make a decent paper” but have, for one reason or another, no time to actually write it up.
Academic publishers, the traditional gatekeepers of the scientific record have some serious issues too (despite their astonishing profits). The ‘academic spring’, where scientists are boycotting Elsevier and other commercial publishing houses, is just one story. Open access publishing has these traditional publishers falling over themselves to keep up. That is a different story.
What about the editors that unilaterally reject papers simply because the quality of English is poor? How much good science fails to see the light of day because the authors can’t string a sentence together?
Then there is all that excellent work that sits in the millions of masters’ dissertations and PhD theses that never get (validly) published because the students have simply left for better jobs outside science and don’t care.
Academic books are another case in point. They tend to have miniscule circulation and when they are out of print, the knowledge effectively becomes buried and lost.
What’s the issue and solution?
I think the real core issue, the one that leads to all these quirks, rants and arguments is that scientists are not really ‘trained’ in scientific writing. Sure, there are excellent scientists out there that can write brilliantly. But in general, scientific writing is something that scientists are expected to develop just with practice.
This is a ridiculous expectation. It’s a bit like a welder learning how a blowtorch works on the job. Thankfully most welders do actually go to blowtorch school before they are let loose on a building site. Scientists however do not go to writing school before they are let loose on the scientific publishing world.
Stop a moment and think about this carefully. Ultimately scientific endeavour is about spending money to discover something and then write about it (in the hope that someone will read it and do something with it). It is about turning money into words for the good of mankind and perhaps make even more money later on. However the people that actually do this, the scientists, are not actually trained to turn that money into words.
I can already hear shouts of ‘Max, wait, isn’t that supposed to be the job of the supervisors/managers/funders etc etc?’ Well, yes and no. They are meant to tutor and ferry along their students to publishing glory. It is in their interest too. However, I know from years and years of experience that many don’t or worse, can’t because they have never been trained either. Throw in the point that most scientists are not native English speakers and you can start to see why there is an issue.
So, with a fanfare and a wave of my flag, I am going to blow this process apart and show you just how easy scientific writing and publishing can be… if you follow some rules. There will be no more tears, no more blank pages and no more mystery about writing and publishing science.
Publish or perish is dead, deceased and so last season.
Welcome to publish and flourish.
What's the blog about?
A space for exploring science, communications, and issues we might encounter talking about science online, in the real world and on paper. Opinions and thoughts are all mine and any waffle is just simply great ideas being worked on. Feel free to join the conversation in any way you want.
Who are you?
Max Bingham. I'm a freelance scientific writer and editor. I help scientists with writing and editing, academic book production and communications. This blog is a space for me to work out ideas, discuss developments and go on and on about a topic I am really rather interested in.