The Educated Chemist: Publish or be damned
Your research isn't finished until you write it down, as Sarah Houlton discovers
If there is a list of research papers on your CV, it will attract recruiters when you're trying to get a job. So one of the most important things students can do to increase their chances of getting that job is to publish their work. But if a paper is going to get published and have an impact, it's not just the quality of the science that matters - it's got to be well written, too.
'You should use a simple, factual style,' says Christopher Lowe of the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, who, along with his colleague Gadi Rothenberg, runs a course on writing research articles. 'You want to impress people with the quality of your research, not by using complicated English! It's a mistake to assume readers are native speakers. It's also vital to organise your ideas in a clear way - woolly thinking equals woolly writing,' says Lowe. 'State clearly what question you're addressing, and explain how far you have got towards answering it. Differentiate your ideas from what other people have done. Use graphics to make the paper clearer and more interesting. And, please, explain why people should care about what you've done.'
Make yourself clear
Lowe and Rothenberg's 'Write it Right' course focuses on technical English and how to organise a manuscript to maximise its clarity and impact. 'If you do a piece of research, it's not finished until you write it down,' Lowe says. 'But if you write it down and no-one can understand it, there's no point! And if it does get published, and no-one reads it, that's equally pointless.'
Participants submit a two-page manuscript beforehand, which forms the basis for many of the exercises. 'The ideal outcome is that participants have the basis of a paper that they can publish,' he says. 'We try to use relatively painless pieces of advice to make the draft better, encouraging clarity, accuracy and organising things properly. We like getting people writing and thinking about their writing, giving them confidence to write about their research.'
The advice they give isn't limited to the writing itself. 'Some people say it's not quantity of papers that's important but the quality, but this is wrong,' says Lowe. 'The length of a publications list has an instant impact. When looking through 100 or more CVs, those with the most publications naturally catch the eye. These are the ones that make it as far as close scrutiny of the quality of the papers.'
You should always write down and publish your work as soon as it is complete, and not leave it hanging around. 'If you're a good scientist, you'll have lots of ideas, so you should get a lot of results, and you'll have a lot of papers,' he says. 'We also advise that one idea equals one paper. There's nothing immoral about that - it's actually clearer for the reader to deal with a paper that addresses one problem.'
He does not, however, advocate 'salami publishing', where one idea is split into several papers, with little difference between them.
'If a CV has a lot of publications, this is probably the next thing a recruiter will be looking out for,' says Lowe. 'Papers should all contain something new which has not been published elsewhere,' he adds. 'Maximising your output without resorting to salami publishing is the most important career advice I have for any aspiring scientist.'
The course also covers which journal to publish your work in. 'Every piece of work has its level, and you should know it,' says Lowe. 'If you have something very good you should give a very high impact journal a try and not be too modest - nor too disappointed if the referees reject it. This is often for subjective reasons. Also, look at how long a journal takes to publish papers. If you are close to writing up your PhD, you don't want to use a journal that takes two years to publish your work. Take the current issue and look at when the papers were submitted to get an idea how long it will take.'
Fundamentally, Lowe believes, good writing is the key to making life easier for yourself with the publishing process.
'Assuming the work is good, follow a few sensible tricks of the trade,' says Lowe. 'By doing so you can minimise problems with referees, increase the chances of making it into print and - most importantly - maximise your chances of getting noticed and understood. After all the effort you have put into the research, you deserve it!'
Sarah Houlton is a freelance writer based in London, UK
Write it Right
Courses and workshops on writing research articles
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