Image source:“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com
How to write a scientific article for a journal? Does writing require training? Does the training come with experience or does one take courses for that? How does one write it so that lucidity is maintained and the scientific message is still conveyed straight across? How much does writing PhD thesis help beforehand?
As any other beginner I had the same questions with my first-ever scientific article as a 2 years old PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Aging, Cologne, Germany. I was still figuring out best ways to interpret results, optimize protocols, and busy learning new things, when I was invited by my boss to participate in writing a review. On the one hand, I was overwhelmed with joy at the opportunity to face this new challenge. On the other hand, I was confronting the pressure to prove my writing skills not only to my ambitious and detail-oriented supervisor but also to my ambitious self. The task was made easy by two facts. First, it was an invited review from the journal, and was supposed to be short. Second, my highly organized supervisor divided the review into two equal parts and allowed me the option to choose mine. I chose the introduction and the first topic. She was responsible for the last two topics. Since I was naïve I decided to follow directions. I was first directed to read up past and current literature regarding my parts and draft a very rough plan on what I was going to write and whom I was going to cite (with proper justifications regarding the latter). I had strict time limits and needed to fulfill this task within two days. This strict deadline helped me to be structured and to streamline my reading. After getting a green signal on the rough draft, I was given a week to hand over the final draft. I had to make sure I read most of the articles I cited, followed a scientific diction of that from leading journals, and that it made a smooth reading. It felt like a herculean task as a beginner and required utilizing all my scientific fervor and burning my night oils. First of all, I read up reviews written by my supervisor, just to have an idea of her writing so that the review doesn’t read completely foreign when both the parts are combined as a final article. I made sure that I stayed close to the topic and included past and current knowledge as well as discussed contradictions wherever applicable. Of course flair for writing and a bit of talent was necessary to fulfill the task in that short time. Her honest feedback and constructive criticisms were very beneficial, and it was a huge relief to hear that it was well written. After combining both the parts, we still went through several editing sessions, which is part of the ball game anyway. Finally, it was accepted and published, without a single correction or suggestion from the editor. That was a big exercise!! Looking back at that article I always feel a sense of accomplishment, as it smells the sweet fragrance of my hard work and learning.
The next challenge was to write my first manuscript ever during the first few months of my Post Doc. This was now a different lab than my PhD lab. Two things helped again. First, by this time I had finished my PhD, hence by now I was a pro in literature survey, and second, I already went through the review writing and thesis writing. As anyone else would do, I started first with writing the results part and prepared the figures. Preparing figures with the adobe illustrator was a part of my PhD learning, hence it was easy now. Next, I wrote the easiest part, the materials and methods. The introduction was a bit challenging because I was pretty new to the topic and needed to read up past and current literature, but having written the review on a strict time schedule helped. The challenge was the discussion because I needed to discuss all past and present contradictions, conundrums and speculate possible mechanisms. Another point was the format. In certain journals, the discussion is written like one long story, putting the results in a bigger perspective. In some others, each result is discussed under a separate heading. Hence, I needed to first decide which journal we were going to communicate this manuscript to, in order to be able to choose one format over the other. Since ours was a specific topic, hence we narrowed down to a few journals dealing with this topic. Next, we chose the one that was closest to our interest in terms of peer review, audience spectrum and impact. I then wrote the discussion according to the norms of our chosen journal. In all, I took a good one month in preparing the entire manuscript for this journal. The manuscript writing was a fun learning, more so because my Post Doc supervisor gave me complete freedom to explore my writing skills. She edited and improved certain parts but thankfully the overall story was narrated in my style and therefore I feel a strong ownership to this one. The story has just been accepted!
The most recent learning however has been the review of another manuscript. Many PIs request their senior PhD students or post docs to review a few articles to relieve some workload. I look at it as a symbiotic act because the post doc gets trained to be objective, improve his/her analytical skills and becomes even more critical without being biased and the PI saves his/her time. Since I had no experience or opportunity in reviewing during my PhD, I had once mentioned it as one of my interests to my Post Doc supervisor. One fine day, she gave me an article to review and I took this task happily to my stride. I was naïve, therefore, my boss advised me to judge the following points in the manuscript:
- If the abstract is making justice to the title.
- Is the introduction justified, too long or too short according to the journal norms?
- Are the experiments performed with proper controls, if statistics are sound, if the conclusions are drawn well or are there over interpretations?
- Are the techniques sufficient to answer the question or other ones could have been used?
- Have they discussed adequately.
I took into account all the above points. Since the manuscript was a small story and was quiet close to our field, it was easy to judge as a beginner. Ideally speaking, a Post Doc is not a beginner in reviewing anymore. By this time he/she has critically evaluated his/her own data, has discussed the data of peers during lab/departmental seminars and has attended numerous scientific talks from speakers around the world and hopefully participated in stimulating scientific discussions. It is only that one has not penned down the critical points in a structured manner. Hence, I began. It was not too difficult to find the strong points of the story as well as the deficiencies. First of all I wrote down what kind of controls or experiments were missing. Next I checked if the techniques they used were justified, if not, what else could have answered their question better. I spotted the over conclusions/under statements in their data as compared to the numbers on their graphs. And finally I assessed the contribution of their work in the field by doing a little bit of background check on the exact topic. I wrote down all the above points in a well-structured way and discussed with my boss, who also came up with her own judgment. Finally, we came to a unified conclusion and she gave the verdict.
Overall, it was a very unique experience to be on the other side of the coin, to be able to be unbiased and critical and to be able to judge as a peer.
So this was my small journey with my baby steps from writing a review to writing my first manuscript and to reviewing a small article. With these steps I not only came to realize my interests in scientific writing, but also that we all can learn new things and venture into the unknown if we are passionate, determined, and focused. And yes, every single small step counts! I hope that, through my tiny story, I could somehow inspire the beginners and the skeptical. So….what are you waiting for? Grab the opportunity or create one!
About the author: Sushmita Ghatak completed her PhD from Max Planck Institute for Biology of Ageing (Cologne, Germany) in 2015. As a graduate student, she worked on the role of the ageing niche in regulating skin stem cell homeostasis. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Uniklinik (Cologne). She is exploring the domain of skin wound healing and fibrosis by studying the role of collagen binding integrin receptors in skin homeostasis.
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