Saturday, March 19, 2011

Tips for scientific publication

*This post is purely academic.*

No laptop. No powerpoint slides. No laser pointer. Just him and a few aspiring scientists. Some modest advice. Bountiful jokes.

This is what yesterday’s talk by Prof Jiri Friml was all about. He is a professor at the University of Ghent, Belgium and has a whole bunch of publications in top journals such as Nature, Science, PNAS, Cell. He estimated an average output of ~15 publications per year from his lab.

One of the reasons I wanted to put together this talk is because it was down-to-earth and is adaptable by any lab. I remember one talk in the past where the scientist showed us a picture of himself writing a paper in an isolated room. The slide was completely dark except for some faint light from his laptop’s monitor that illuminated his face and the papers strewed around him. He was literally seeing ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ I suppose.

Anyway, here is my summary of Prof Jiri Friml’s talk.

1. DATA: The hard truth about publication is that more than half of the data that has been accumulated is not going to go into the paper. So, it’s best to be mindful of the requirement and work towards it, rather than accumulate truckloads of data which will eventually not get in. Saves time and a painful heart.
2. KNOCK-KNOCK: His lab statistics show that students who knock his office door more often for discussions are the ones who churn out more publications. So, don’t have any inhibitions. Just take the initiative, discuss and get started.
3. OUTLINE: This is the most important trick of all. So, once you have all the data, organize it and come up with an outline. A near perfect one. The outline would basically include putative figures, tables, the flow of the story, etc.
4. KICK ASS: As ruthful as it may sound, that’s exactly what he said. Go behind your supervisor. Make sure he goes though your outline and criticizes. Sit down with him to discuss areas where you can improve and bring it to better shape.
5. WRITER’S BLOCK: Well, who doesn’t have one? There is and will never be a universal cure for a writer’s block. Eventually, the only inevitable way to break it is to sit down and get started. The first paragraph would almost make you repent your decision to do a PhD, but once you have crossed this Indo-Pak border, then you are better off (slightly).
6. TITLE: The main (earth shattering) finding in crisp and simple language.
7. ABSTRACT: One of the most important parts of the manuscript. Be clear and concise. This is exactly what he said about abstracts, “If your paper is about plant development, and you are submitting it to Plant Biology, write your abstract as if you were explaining it to your benchmate. If you intend to submit to Developmental Biology, write as if you are telling your mother. Lastly, if you are aiming for Nature, it better be good enough for your grandma to understand.” I guess that pretty much summarizes it.
8. SHORT STORY OR NOVEL: Decide on whether you are going to write up the story in the long (5-7 pages?) or the short format (3-4 pages?).
9. WHICH JOURNAL: It’s good to be excited about your data, but don’t be that incurable optimist. Give your story that modest rating and decide on a journal where you would like to send. Certain journals have a format for the text and the references. Keep that in mind while writing.
10. THE STORY: Make sure the idea and the findings form a rounded story. Don’t hide important data and conclusions in the middle of figures or tables. Reveal them at the beginning of a paragraph or give that punch at the end of one.
11. PERFECT THE PARAGRAPH: Try to work one at a time. Don’t move to the next paragraph until you are satisfied with the previous one. If you skim through, only to come back and edit it later, it’s going to drain your energy further. Of course, there are bound to be gaps, but make sure you know what needs to be filled in.
12. FIRST DRAFT: Make it as perfect as you can before the first draft of the manuscript goes to your supervisor. The supervisor is busy (by default) and he is only going to get irritated to see silly errors. Save him his energy by italicizing the gene names, giving relevant references, mapping the text to the right figure/table and checking for typos and grammatical errors.
13. RE-WRITE: Now for the truth. No matter how much blood you shed to make it that perfect first draft, your supervisor will spot a mistake in the very second line. So go ahead and make all the changes as soon as possible.
14. FINAL TOUCHES: Once you and your supervisor are ready with the final manuscript, try to get it reviewed by someone senior within your institute/university. He/she might be able to give that critical eye before you send it out to the editor. Also, if there is someone good enough to polish the language, go ahead and get them to look through it. *His university actually has a full time staff who goes through manuscripts and helps them to make sure that their format adheres to the journal’s requirements.*
15. COVER LETTER: Keep it short. Don’t be redundant by talking about your data once again. The editor is going to read your abstract anyway. Highlight previous publications in their journal or other top journals whose work highly co-relates to yours. Be poetic, if possible.
16. AVOID YOUR ENEMIES: This is more in the hands of the supervisor. If your supervisor has the option to choose your reviewers, that would be good. If he would wish that the paper rather not end up with some folks, mark them off.
17. PROFESSIONAL, NOT EMOTIONAL: Rejected? Now, don’t get dejected and make that emotional call to the editor. He/she encounters such calls throughout the day and just wants to have some peace at work before he can get back to a whiny baby at home. So, be professional. If you believe that there is really a misunderstanding, write it down and e-mail it to them.
18. KEEP IT SIMPLE: The Prof narrated this incident wherein one of his papers got rejected by Nature, Nature Cell Biology and then also by Plant Biology. He simply split the single manuscript into two, made it simpler and got them both accepted by Science. Simple is the key.
19. FATE: Some papers are just fated to go round and round. There is nothing you can do about them. Don’t give up.
20. PUBLISHED: Finally! Go and open the corks!

Happy publishing!