Why am I writing this?

On scientific publication

I have been working on some publications, you know those results-based things that scientists write, submit, are peer-reviewed and with a bit of luck get published in a fantastic journal and then with not as much luck just a journal. As Stephen Curry pointed out a few weeks ago there is sort of a love-hate relationship with publishing in general and high impact publishing specifically.

I have a love-hate relationship with ‘high impact publishing’ – or A* or 4* or whatever it is called. On one level good science should go where it is most likely to be read and will have the highest impact, which in my research area (fortunately) is a fairly broad range of journals. On another level it does feel really good to get one of your papers in something that is considered high impact in your field. It sometimes (but not always) leads to higher readership. I think we are all secret divas, scientists, we do want people to read our papers so in a sense high impact publishing makes you feel like: ‘Yes the lights are on and my public has arrived!”

Scientist picture courtesy of Dorrie’s Comics and Cartoons

I am writing a few papers all at the same time, they are in various stages and I have various responsibilities for them. I am supreme corresponding author in one case, joint corresponding author in another and 3rd spear carrier in yet another. This is all good stuff, but one of the problems is that I don’t just sit and diligently work on one draft at a time (it almost makes me miss the days of being a PhD student). In fact I do other things and then sit down at my desk and start to pick up the plot again. Its a bit like leaving War and Peace for a few months – you forget who all of the characters are, with their various names and nicknames. While you may retain the gist of the plot that is pretty much it and you have to spend hours in the Glossary figuring out who is who. Or at least I do.

So I was struggling this week thinking; What was I doing? How did I do this analysis? and such like until I remembered… George Whitesides’ paper! George Whitsides’ essay entitled:

Whitesides’ Group: Writing a Paper

Its in the journal Advanced Materials (Wiley-VCH) – and is downloadable to anyone as a .pdf.

George Whitesides is a chemist at Harvard and has done oodles of chemistry and contributed much to the field but this paper on papers in itself is precious. It seems like something you’d think is pretty basic, and in many ways it is, you might even think to yourself – come on I know how to write a paper, I have written papers! Even though its tennants are simple, sometimes the simplest things are worth remembering. And for me it is helpful to stop a minute and think – wait, stop! Why am I writing this?

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
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13 Responses to Why am I writing this?

  1. Steve says:

    Love the Freudian slip ‘punished in a fantastic journal’

    • whoops Fruedian indeed! I fixed it now, but I think I liked the way it read originally better. I have been punished far more than published by high-impact journals, haven’t we all….

      • Austin says:

        A definite ‘Yea’ to that one.

        • cromercrox says:

          I’ve probably told you the story about how I visited the Natural History Museum with Crox Minor (then aged 4) to see a special exhibition on the feathered dinosaurs of China. I’d published almost all the exhibits in Your Favourite Weekly Professional Science Magazine Beginning With N, but had not seen any of the actual fossils. So there I was, deep in contemplation of one of the exhibits, when Crox Minor appeared and said ‘Dad, did you punish this in Nature?‘. Truly, out of the mouths of babes.

  2. That Whitesides paper is brilliant. Thanks for the tip. I may circulate it strategically to certain students hereabouts… 😉

    The only thing it’s missing is one that I will always correct when I see it: data ARE plural.

    As for War and Peace – I’ve never had the pleasure, but my experience with Anna Karenina was similar. I’ve never made it beyond the end of the first chapter.

  3. Frank says:

    Thanks for the tip abhout the Whitesides paper. Just spotted something else relevant on Twitter (ht Cameron Neylon): Springer Author Academy. It is a guide to writing and publishing a scientific manuscript. Cameron highlighted this phrase:

    Your research is NOT complete until it has been published.

  4. Heather says:

    Yes. And that paper had been highlighted by my univ library ‘s Mendeley group, which I believe has all of four subscribers. But you described these moments very well indeed.

    • I don’t really understand your comment Heather, sorry.

      • Heather says:

        Sorry. I try to be (too) succinct when attempting to type from my telephone, and clearly would do better not to comment at all.

        What I had meant was, the Whitesides paper has drawn the attention of a group set up by some researcher theoretically representing my university. I had thought it was a librarian, because librarians tend to know about Mendeley, but that’s in fact not very clear.

        This group has currently three members out of the some 70,000 potential people associate with University Aix-Marseille II.


        Anyhow, the Whitesides paper is I believe publicly available here: http://www.mendeley.com/research/whitesides-group-writing-a-paper/ – if it’s not, it is free to join Mendeley, and then I presume it would be. Certainly the group itself is then free.

        I think I have heard that a lot of papers published in what we’d consider the “top” journals actually never get cited, or hardly. My co-authors were a little lukewarm about submitting recently to PLoS One, but one of the arguments that convinced them was that (a) many of their friends and colleagues had done so, turned out, and (b) there are easily visible metrics. It’s kind of nice to know we’ve been noticed at all.

        • Hi heather – thanks. The whitesides paper is also available in the link in my blog, it just downloads as a .pdf

          I don’t know about getting sited less, I guess it depends what you write and how you direct people towards it. It seems there are lots of good papers in the literature everywhere, but not always so easy to find them, even with lovely search engines.. I guess this is what the h- index is supposed to count for, eg it doesn’t matter what journal you are in only how many cites, but that is weird too, it’s very field dependent..
          It’s a crazy publishing world..

  5. DC says:

    Sylvia darling – i don’t mean to be a grammatical pedant (well yes i do really) but don’t you mean ‘tenets’ and not a plurality of an English Chemist (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smithson_Tennant)

  6. Nico says:

    I trust most publishers have guidelines on how to write a paper, NPG’s are here.

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