Sunday, March 23, 2008

Writing matters.

Here are two parodies of the same imaginary story written up as abstracts for Cell/Science/Nature vs. A Specialty Journal. Which one would you send out for review?




Specialty Journal Version.

Crystal structure of gobbledegook bound to schmutz
Authors: Grad Student, Undergrad, PI.

The crystal structure of gobbledegook bound to schmutz in complex with peanut butter identifies a distinct mode of jabberwockying junk. Gobbledegook binds to schmutz via the conserved ACDC domain.




Cell/Science/Nature Version.

Molecular mechanism of junk recruitment by economic downturn
Authors: Postdoc, Grad Student, Actual PI, Famous PI who did nothing.

How junk is jabberwockied is a longstanding problem in biology. Here, we tested the hypothesis that junk is jabberwockied by economic downturn by examining the crystal structure of gobbledegook bound to schmutz. Surprisingly, the conserved ACDC domain is required for jabberwockying junk, revealing the molecular mechanism of economic downturn as a novel basis for junk recruitment to jabberwockying sites.




Newsflash:
In terms of the actual scientific content, the same work written up different ways can have completely different chances, because most journals make their initial decision on whether to send a paper out for review using only the abstract and author list.

You're kidding yourself if you think that the writing, and who does it, is not important in determining where your papers get published, who ends up reading them, and how much they get out of it.

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6 Comments:

At 6:33 AM, OpenID qw88nb88 said...

It's just like writing for popular-press magazines -- you have to be aware of the editorial style and slant of the magazine, and of what particular subtypes of articles they usually publish. Using the editorial phrasing of the publication is key because it helps the editors comfortable, and allows them to imagine your article as something that belongs there.

andrea

 
At 3:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brilliant--I vote for the first one. Continue with some meandering narrative of an experiment with vague reference to "established protocols", a nebulous conclusion, and incomprehensible graphs designed for maximum obfuscation of otherwise simple data.

 
At 8:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like me and JasonBourne said earlier, "why the fuss"? Give me the data and figures, assume I'm familiar with the field, and I can write you your 'Science type' paper in a few days. The hardest part of writing is the references and dutifully searching SciFinder and Pubmed to make sure every claim you make is backed up, or it's not preceded by an obscure example.

I choose not to write now to save time. The PI can do it since he likes it. Doing the work: making sure all the data are fine, all the controls have been run, and all the figures look good, that's the real job.

"longstanding problem" "novel mechanism", and adverbs such as "surprisingly" and "interestingly" are becoming standard fare in specialty journals in my field. It doesn't differentiate a Science article from a regular one. I'm hip to the jive. I still don't care if my PI writes the papers. It won't make me a worse PI in the end (if I choose to go into academia that is).

P.S. I once told my PI that a paper he wrote for someone else (I was not one of the authors) will not get accepted in a big journal since it's too confusing. I tried to make it better and in the end (after much editing back and forth) it was 2x better with regard to presentation, but still too confusing and didn't get accepted. In the end, the experiments were just too difficult to understand unless you were in the subfield and had a free day to think about it. And the reviewers were obviously not up to it. It was a very important paper and gets cited a bit by those in the know from its specialty journal.

 
At 10:30 AM, Anonymous CC said...

3:21 PM knows how to write a proper JBC paper! Remember, the only audience you care about is the three other labs in your sub-sub-subfield, and you don't want them to learn your top-secret tricks. So you need to make the paper confusing to them and unreadable to anyone else.

I choose not to write now to save time. The PI can do it since he likes it. Doing the work: making sure all the data are fine, all the controls have been run, and all the figures look good, that's the real job...I still don't care if my PI writes the papers. It won't make me a worse PI in the end (if I choose to go into academia that is).

Let me guess -- you also duck every opportunity to give talks? You're a fantastic speaker, of course, but it's much more important that you run another gel?

Sorry, but writing and speaking require practice and more practice. If you don't do them and own them, you're not training to be a PI or an industry lab head.

 
At 8:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Let me guess -- you also duck every opportunity to give talks?"

Bzzzt! Wrong answer, try again.

Talks are too much fun to give up, even though they are a bit of a waste of time. I need some way of rubbing shoulders with the movers and shakers. I'm really good at talks and give about 2-3 a year at meetings in my field. Posters take less time to prepare and are not as fun, so I try not to do them in favor of talks.

With a paper, no one knows who wrote it, and since I know I can write well, I don't care if my PI does it for now. I'll practice more when I have to cross that bridge.

Talks, I agree with you. It's harder and you only get 15-20 minutes to impress. It's a bit of an art form and I love the rush of giving one. Not so much if the audience has no good questions for a talk that took me several weeks to prepare. However, your point about writing, just like the blog author's is too much overblown hyperbole. It's not a life and death matter. If by writing, you meant 'writing a good experimental with all the relevant experiments completed and figures made' I might agree with you. The main text is just filler. The PI can do it since he likes it.

 
At 3:28 AM, Anonymous Writing a Research Paper said...

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