Everyone seems to be writing papers at the moment. The other day in the office, two of my labmates were sitting at a computer, thrashing through the proto-Results section of their jointly first-authored magnum opus. In such close quarters, the rest of us were unable to avoid being included in the audible brainstorming process.
I started thinking, then, how many stock phrases occur in manuscripts. Why is it, for example, that adverbs like ‘interestingly’ seem always to be deployed for the most boring results? When I voiced this rhetorical question aloud, we decided to stage an impromptu competition for more original adverbs.
“Earth-shatteringly, there was no significant difference,” someone proposed, getting into the spirit. Other top picks included ‘astonishingly’, ‘tantalizingly’, ‘mind-bogglingly’, and – a personal favorite – ‘Lo and behold’.
My own lab’s papers are not the only ones I’m helping out with, however. Over the past few months, word has spread throughout the institute that I used to be a journal editor. Now, I find that I have become an agony aunt of sorts. Hardly a day passes without someone making that pilgrimage up to the third floor, sheaf of papers in hand, to seek out my Delphic advice on various points of manuscript etiquette:
Does this cover letter sound too aggressive/wimpy/cocky/demure/over-confident/smarmy/fatalistic?
I realize they’ve rejected my paper outright. But if you read between the lines, do you think they might secretly want it back?
How can I imply that referee 2 is an imbecile without sounding defensive/insecure/unbalanced/violent/vindictive/petty?
Which of these experiments does the editor really want me to do, and which are just window-dressing?
Do you think I can buy four more weeks for this revision effort if I tell the editor that the first author is on maternity leave?
It’s only since I’ve been back in the lab that I’ve realized how much the publication process is like an elaborate mating game. With its rituals and codes, artifices and conventions, it is ultimately a relationship in which the authorial side was never meant to truly commune with the editorial. For me, understanding and empathizing with both sides is both a blessing and a curse. When it comes time to write up my own paper in a few months’ time, I can’t decide whether I’ll feel more like a schizophrenic or a double agent.