Archive for July, 2009

Taking the bite out of criticism

Getting feedback on your writing is hard. Even in the supposedly objective world of science, having someone criticize your prose can feel surprisingly personal – and with good reason. Writing, after all, is where you reveal your thought process and your ideas. It’s where you expose your skill with language – or lack thereof. I know I’ve often felt embarrassed when an editor points out a hole in my logic, a weak transition, a poorly organized section. I begin to think that if only I were smarter, or more skilled, or worked harder, I could spot those flaws myself.

And yet, I also know this is asking the impossible. All writers, without exception, need the perspective of others to improve their work. Think about it. That’s why editors exist everywhere in the writing world: in book and scientific publishing, in magazines and newspapers, and even online. If writers could do it all themselves, those jobs wouldn’t exist.

So, if critique is necessary, how can you survive it better? Here are a few thoughts and strategies of mine. I encourage you to develop your own list.

  1. As I said above, review – whether formally by editors or informally by colleagues – exists for a reason, and a conscientious review will reveal weaknesses in your manuscript that you simply can’t spot yourself. And it’s a good thing. So, just accept critique as an integral part of the writing process – a part that no good writer can do without.
  2. That said, choose your reviewers carefully and don’t put up with those who fail to offer thoughtful comments or use the review process to run you down. One of my most despised critiques goes something like this: “There’s a problem with this sentence/paragraph/section but I’m not really sure what it is or how to fix it.” My response: You’re fired! Writing is hard enough without having to contend with crummy feedback.
  3. The caveat to number 2, of course, is that certain critics cannot be fired (e.g., reviewers for the journal or your co-authors), even though their comments can sometimes be downright cruel. So, what to do? If a review really makes you mad, put it away for a few days until you calm down. Then, try taking a more objective look and ask yourself: Does this reviewer have a legitimate point, regardless of the nasty delivery? If you can honestly conclude no, that’s fine. But more often than not, I’ve found the reviewer does have a point, and addressing it results in a stronger paper.
  4. Seek the first critique of your writing when you’ve honed things enough that the basic reasoning and structure comes through, but not so much that you’ve become totally invested in – or sick of – your words. If you’ve reached the latter state, you’ll be in no shape to hear anything but happy things that don’t require work to fix. I’ve struggled with this myself: Often by the time I hand a draft to an editor, I can’t imagine mustering the energy to make one more change to it. That’s when a break comes in handy. While the paper is in review, try to purge your mind of it as much as possible. Then when the comments come back, you’ll be more ready to deal with them.

July 29, 2009 at 1:40 pm Leave a comment

What’s the problem? Part 2

I’m reading a book right now called Engaging Ideas, by Seattle University English professor John Bean, and the following passage from chapter 1 caught my eye:

“Academic writing begins with the posing of a problem. The writer’s thesis statement is a tentative response to that problem, a ‘solution’ that must be supported with the kinds of reasons and evidence that are valued in the discipline.”

Bean makes this statement in support of his thesis: that incorporating writing into the undergraduate curriculum serves to promote critical thinking and problem solving in students. But it’s relevant to scientific writing, too, as I tried to convey (perhaps not as eloquently) in two recent posts: “What’s the problem?” and “Writing the introduction.”

So, once more for good measure: If you are ever wondering how to structure the introduction to a manuscript or what the introduction should include, just remember that the overall goal is to introduce your research problem, including its importance, and your proposed solution to your readers. (I’ve emphasized the reader here as a reminder to think about what background your audience will need to understand the problem). You will then go on to support your solution with the data and reasoning you present in the results and discussion sections.

For me, thinking about the introduction in this way creates a structure on which to hang all the pieces that this section is supposed to include: background, definitions, rationale for the study, research question, etc. In other words, it keeps me grounded in what the introduction is all about. I hope it does the same for you.

July 22, 2009 at 9:22 am Leave a comment

We need clichés like a (black) hole in the head

An article posted today on offers a great reminder to avoid cliché when writing. So weary has the author grown of certain overused expressions in science writing, including “holy grail” and “paradigm,” that she suggests casting them into a black hole. (There also a link to a hilarious article detailing the 5 albums that should be thrown into a black hole).

The story focuses on stale and stereotyped expressions in the popular science press, but, of course, the scientific literature itself is riddled with worn out words and phrases. Although they may not have risen quite to the level of cliché yet, a few expressions I’d like to see less of are:

  • mediate (as in “gene X mediates the growth of Y”)
  • play a role (“metabolic factors play a role in breast cancer”)
  • ubiquitous (this word is pretty darn ubiquitous these days)

Care to add a few of the scientific clichés you love to hate?

July 17, 2009 at 3:15 pm Leave a comment

Writing the introduction

The results and discussion sections are undeniably critical pieces of a scientific paper. But don’t overlook the importance of the introduction. As I alluded to in my last post (What’s the problem?), the introduction is where you unveil your research problem and try to interest people in its solution. If you don’t hook the reader at this stage, chances are your results and discussion sections will never be read.

This isn’t tabloid journalism, however, where writers must resort to glitz and sensationalism to grab readers’ attention. Luckily, all that scientists really need to get engaged is a solid understanding of your research question and its significance. To help guide you in providing this, I’ve listed a set of questions to keep in mind. Consider them guidelines, rather than questions you need to answer explicitly or in the order listed. If you take a look at this set of sample introductions from recent papers, you’ll see that authors address these questions in different ways.

Suggested questions to cover in the introduction

  1. What is the overall topic or problem you address in your paper? What background and definitions do readers need in order to understand this problem?
  2. What is already known about this topic in the literature? What remains to be discovered?
  3. What specific question or problem do you tackle in the paper? Or, what is your specific purpose?
  4. What methods did you use to answer your question and why? (The “why” can be omitted if it’s not really needed)
  5. Why is your system (genes, organism, proteins) a good model for addressing your question?
  6. What are your main findings, and what are their implications or benefits? Or, how do they fill the gap in knowledge that you described earlier?

July 17, 2009 at 10:43 am Leave a comment

What’s the problem?

Formulating and solving problems is the core business of research, and yet many scientists struggle to write a clear and compelling problem statement when writing up their work. In fact, at least two recent papers have suggested that lack of an adequate problem statement in the introduction is a common reason why manuscripts are rejected.

Perhaps one reason for this dearth of good problem statements is that people aren’t certain what a problem statement is. I started to wonder myself after seeing how many authors throw the term around without defining it. But in the end, I think it’s really quite simple: The problem statement shows the reader that there is indeed a problem: an “intricate unsettled question,” a “source of perplexity,” or a “question raised for inquiry, consideration, or solution.” And unless readers grasp the problem, they aren’t going to care about your solution, i.e., the rest of your paper.

So, how to you get them to see the problem and (hopefully) pique their interest? First of all, step back, take a deep breath, and acknowledge how very, very close you are to the work you’ve done – so close that you likely take the central problem underlying your research completely for granted, or have possibly lost sight of it altogether.

Now, think about all the people out there who know absolutely nothing about your project. How would you go about convincing them that a problem exists and that it’s worth their time? You’ll want to start by offering some context. What background information does the reader need to understand the problem? This generally includes a brief discussion of what is known about your particular topic of study and what remains to be discovered. You’ll then want to explain the benefits of filling this knowledge gap (i.e., solving this problem), and just how you resolve to do it. After describing the focus of your study, you may then also want to explain how your methods and/or your system (organism, genes, protein, etc.) are exceptionally suited to the task.

In short, a problem statement should define for the reader not only what question you aimed to answer, but also why you chose that question and why it’s important. Failing to address the “why” or the “so what” will make the research look pointless – like a solution in search of a problem.

G. Bordage. Reasons reviewers reject and accept manuscripts: The strengths and weaknesses in medical education reports (2001) Academic Medicine 76(9): 889-896

J. M. Provenzale. Ten principles to improve the likelihood of publication of a scientific manuscript (2007) American Journal of Roentgenology 188: 1179–1182

July 14, 2009 at 9:11 am Leave a comment

Choose your target early

post-it maniaWhen you’re feeling pressure to write a paper quickly, it can be very tempting to start typing before thinking much about the journal you’ll be submitting to. I’d urge you, however, to do at least some investigating and narrowing of your options before diving into writing. Why? Having a clear idea of your target journal can save a lot of time: in revising text, reformatting (especially the references), cutting words and – most time consuming of all – dealing with rejection because your paper didn’t fit within a journal’s scope.

Luckily, it’s not too hard to discover what specific journals want. They all have detailed instructions to authors on their websites that cover everything from the audience to word limits. And another way to glean this information, of course, is to read the abstracts or full text of several recent papers.

As an example of what I’m talking about, consider these excerpts from the websites of three journals that accept manuscripts in computational biology:

PLoS Biology features works of exceptional significance, originality, and relevance in all areas of biological science, from molecules to ecosystems, including works at the interface of other disciplines, such as chemistry, medicine, and mathematics. Our audience is the international scientific community as well as educators, policy makers, patient advocacy groups, and interested members of the public around the world.

Molecular Biology and Evolution welcomes manuscripts reporting both empirical and theoretical work, as well as significant new statistical and computational methods. All work must have a solid biological basis…MBE will only publish work focused on taxonomy and systematics or descriptive studies of genetic diversity and population structure, if they are of interest and relevance to a broad audience.

Bioinformatics provides a forum for the exchange of information in the fields of computational molecular biology and post-genome bioinformatics, with emphasis on the documentation of new algorithms and databases that allows the progress of bioinformatics and biomedical research in a significant manner.

What I can deduce immediately is that PLoS Biology looks for research of the broadest possible significance; Molecular Biology and Evolution also strongly emphasizes biological relevance but perhaps isn’t trying to reach quite as wide an audience as PLoS Biology; while papers submitted to Bioinformatics can – and possibly should – focus more on methods. In other words, although each journal accepts computational biology manuscripts, they all have different audiences and emphases that you need to pay attention to when writing. This is especially true when you’re setting up for readers the larger context for your work – why it’s important and what your findings mean.

That’s not to say you should inflate the importance of your results in an effort to please a certain journal. What you should do, though, is identify your audience ahead of time (both the journal editors and the scientists/readers they represent), and then think about how to best reach them.

July 1, 2009 at 9:15 am Leave a comment

Science of Scientific Writing

This article describes what readers expect when they read - and how scientific writing often violates those expectations.