This is how you get your work published.
I often see competent and hard-working people spending extra-hours in the lab, gathering loads of data, but having a hard time to write a paper or a thesis out of all that work. If you see yourself like that, I have a few tips that may help.
1. Think (a lot) about your work
At the end of a successful scientific project, we should be able to tell a story. We should be able to tell in simple terms why we studied that topic, how we approached it, what we found, and why that’s important.
Trivial, no? But the secret is that you shouldn’t wait for the end of the project to create this story. It should be clear for you during the whole project. It should be clear even before starting any measurements or simulations. It means that you should spend a good deal of time thinking about your project.
Naturally, in the beginning, this story will be a piece of fiction based on your experiences and expectancies. It will deeply change during the execution of the project. With every new result, you will need to review what was right or wrong about your earlier versions and adapt it accordingly.
To look at your research project as a story helps to focus on what is important to make it publishable.
2. Do not wait to start the analysis
Some people spend months accumulating data before starting the analysis. They are like the little pig with a house of straw. It won’t survive the first blow.
Other people collect the data during the execution and fill tons of Excel worksheets. It’s better, but still a weak house.
The brick house of a science project is to collect the data, immediately analyze and put them already in the final form. Make always tables and graphs with publication level. It takes more time, much of this material won’t appear in the publication, sometimes you have even to start over, but this strategy pays off.
It improves communication with co-workers, and it allows you to keep close track of your aims. You know exactly what’s missing to make the project publishable. You literally have only to fill the blanks.
3. Write a concept paper
In the same way you should start the analysis very early in the project, you should start writing your story soon. In my group, we call it a concept paper. It’s a short document, a couple of pages long, where we write down the story of the project.
This is my template for a concept paper:
|1. General problem||State the general problem you are interested in.|
|2. Specific problem||State the specific problem you are tackling.|
|3. Literature review||Review the main findings of other people about the specific problem.|
|4. Working hypothesis||Tell what your hypothesis is to address or test the specific problem.|
|5. Methodology||Explain the methodology you are using to address it.|
|6. Main results||Tell your results (or what you expect they are going to be).|
|7. The consequence of the results||Tell how your results solve or help understand the specific problem.|
|8. Impact of the results||Speculate on the impact of your results on the general problem.|
|9. Outlook||Speculate on which further investigations may be needed beyond your project.|
A good moment is to start the concept paper is as soon as your results indicate the story that you are going to tell won’t change too much (and if it occasionally does, it doesn’t matter).
Again, the strategy is to fill the blanks. Writing the first draft, you will get a feeling of what is missing. You can’t get the literature revision right? It may mean you should go back to review the literature. You can’t get the results presented in a logical way? It may mean that some more analyses or measurements are needed.
Make it beautiful. Work with a formatted template. Include a tentative title, a preliminary list of authors, basic diagrams, core results you have already, sketches of the results you expect to get, the main references. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed about doing it still months before the last results be finally available. To be in front of something that looks like the final product of your work has a tremendous positive psychological impact.
Writing a concept paper has two additional advantages:
First, it’s an excellent way to communicate with your co-workers and get into a consensus of how the work should be presented. (It’s much easier to change the concept paper than a paper manuscript.)
Second, having a concept paper ready, it’s incredibly simple to extend it into a full paper.
4. Keep the aim in mind, but be flexible
To have a clear story is important, but don’t be stubborn about it. Most of the time, your first expectations won’t be satisfied. In general, you will be disappointed with the results. Other times, you will just find out things that have already been reported. On the bright side, you may also be luck of stumble across with something amazingly new.
If, however, you keep a too inflexible mindset, you may not be able to overturn a disappointment or to profit from positive surprises.
Always revisit your work from different angles. Try to find other ways of seeing and telling it.
5. Get used to write
If like me, you aren’t a native English speaker, writing may be especially challenging. Take some time to read general stuff (Facebook and Twitter don’t count). Go for science popularization books. More than technical papers, reading them will expand your vocabulary, improve your style, and give you more freedom to express yourself.
Even if you are a native English speaker, writing can still be frustratingly hard. Usually, it’s because the story to be told isn’t clear for yourself. Work on that. For young people, however, the lack of experience writing papers may also be a reason.
In this latter case, I suggest you do like a young colleague of mine did early in his career. His first papers were like copies of mine. Not in content, of course, but in structure and style. He used my papers as a template for his.
Find people in your field writing in the way you would like to do. Use their papers as templates. That’s a good strategy to gain confidence and to start to develop your own style.
- This post is a revised version of a text first published in my former blog Much Bigger Outside on June 22, 2014.