The Institute of Health & Society at Newcastle University has recently set up an Early Career Researchers group. I was invited to speak at their inaugural meeting on ‘publishing’. The brief was to speak for about 20 minutes and cover 10 top tips. I think I was an ECR just on the edge of the time when the phrase started being used, and the research community started to recognise ECRs as a group worthy of attention and nurturing. Sometimes the younger researchers at conferences were invited to pub crawls (not really my thing), but I don’t remember much in the way of encouragement to organise and support each other. The attendance at the IHS ECR meeting was huge and there was a definite buzz in the room. I felt quite excited, and flattered, to be there.
‘Publishing’ is a big topic and so much of how to do it seems to be about experience, working out what works in what situations, and a mixture of good luck and persistence. But I managed to come up with 10 things that felt worth saying – maybe not the toppest tips of all, but some things worth thinking about. The first five are here. I’ll cover the next five sometime in the next few weeks.
1. Know what your paper did (aims) and what it adds (message)
I think there are two sentences that almost all peer-reviewed papers hang on – the aims and the message. The introduction justifies the aims, the methods describe how the aims were achieved, and the results describe what the ‘answer’ to the aims were. You probably know what the aims were (perhaps you shouldn’t have started the research if were clear what you were trying to achieve?). The message might be harder. This is the one thing you want people to remember from your paper. The ‘what this study adds’ box; the ‘citable sentence’. The message is what drives much of the discussion and in some cases may be open to interpretation. So you might have to discuss it with your team to get it clear.
|Knowing your aims and message are about knowing where your paper's come from and where it's going; map by Max Roberts|
2. Write a detailed plan as a team
I think I have only written a paper plan as a team once in my career. So I can’t promise that this works. But I get the feeling that much drafting and re-drafting could be avoided if a detailed plan for each paper was agreed within the team before the real business of writing got underway. If we all agreed the general argument put forward in the introduction, the sub-headings required in the methods, the crucial tables/quotes/figures to include in the results, and the three or four main points under each sub-heading of the discussion, then perhaps there would be little more than re-wording required at the comments stage. Perhaps?
3. Pay attention to your laziness
We are all lazy. Different people just express it in different ways, and hit the point of can’t be bothered at different points. I’m sure we all do that thing of arguing there is a good scientific reason not to do something, when the truth is we just really cannot find the will to do it. There is a lot of self-discipline required in lots of areas of research, and sometimes you run out. This is okay, understandable, and expected. But it feels to me worth noticing and being truthful – at least to yourself – about when the real issue is laziness and when there is good scientific justification for stopping. Then at least you know what the problem is and how you should address or justify it.
4. Know when good enough is good enough
Which brings me to knowing when to stop. Because hardly any (no?) piece of research is perfect and there does come a point where you have to agree that what you have is good enough for what you are trying to achieve. This point might be different for different things. But you do have to be able to draw a line and move on or else you'll never get to the next project - which is always more exciting/interesting/likely to change the world than the current one.
5. Review, review, review
Papers in peer-reviewed journals are remarkably formulaic. I think the best way to learn to write them, is to read others. And the best way to make yourself pay attention to how other papers are written as you read them is to do so as a peer-reviewer. If you aren’t routinely asked to peer-review for journals (and generally you need a publication record for this to happen), the more senior people you work with probably are. It’s fairly normal either to pass reviews officially on to a colleague via the journal office, or to do a review together with a less experienced colleague. So ask if you want more experience of this. Informal peer-review can also be very valuable – to reviewer and reviewed. We all know that feeling of being too close to a piece of work and needing someone with fresh eyes to notice the glaring mistakes.
OK. That’s it for today. I promise to get around to writing up tips 6-10 in the next few weeks. In the meantime, what are your top tips for getting published?