Many years ago as a graduate student at the College of William & Mary, Virginia Institute of Marine Science, my former officemate (Noelle Relles) and I came up with a novel idea: take all the disparate information out there about strategies for getting into graduate school in the natural sciences and coalesce them into a single concise yet comprehensive text. Essentially develop a How-To book about graduate school. But we wanted the book to be more than just instructional anecdotes. We were scientist, and thought it would be useful to add a level of empiricism to the book. We wanted to write a How-To book where the conclusion were driven by results from a national survey of graduate admissions offices in the USA. At the time, writing a book based on a national survey of graduate programs seemed like quite a long-shot as we were both a number of years removed from getting our PhDs, and the most pressing issues in our lives at that time were graduating and finding free food and alcohol.
There are an increasing number of scientific articles being produced and posted at a frantic rate. How can you make your paper stand out and be memorable amongst this plethora of publications? Moreover, if your work is conservation-related, how do you ensure that the people who matter see and remember your work?
The one part of your paper all readers see and read is the title. From my own experience as an editor of scientific journals, as well as from the page-view statistics I have seen, the percentage of people that go on to read your abstract is less than a tenth of those that read the title. The percentage that read beyond the abstract to look at the whole article is a tenth of that again.
This why I have entitled this blog “Title is the new abstract“. You want to maximize the amount of information in the title of your paper.
I’m currently doing an annual review of environmental impacts on whales and dolphins for the International Whaling Commission, which involves assessing, reading and potentially summarizing almost everything that’s published on cetacean conservation. Every year this exercise gives me an ulcer because: (a) climate change and pollution threats are accelerating; (b) reiterated recommendations from scientists from many, many previous years have yet again gone unheeded; and (c) some endangered species get closer and closer to extinction, yet most of the funding goes to research questions whose answers we really already know rather than to practical conservation. It’s all rather depressing …
I really didn’t want to care about this paper, at all.
When news broke Wednesday afternoon that a paper in PLOS One referenced the “Creator” in the abstract, introduction, and discussion, I took a look, read through the methodology and results, asked a few colleagues in that field if there were any methodological problems that would indicate that the actual science was unsound, and concluded it was… fine. Not phenomenal, earth-shattering, or paradigm shifting, but methodologically sound.
Incidentally, publishing based on the soundness of the methodology rather than the ground-breakingness of the research, is one of PLOS ONE’s mandates.
But the paper was awkwardly framed around a few phrases referencing the role of the Creator. This framework didn’t bleed into the methods or results but it was there, and the scientific community noticed. I noted, under the assumption that the authors were inserting creationist language into their paper, that there are numerous papers that try to hang their studies on tenuous frameworks and draw not entirely supportable conclusions, and not just in PLOS. Then I chatted with a few colleagues about it and called it a day.
Any scientist who is trying to publish relies upon the generosity of other scientists to peer-review their work. As any scientist will tell you, this has pros and cons – constructive advice can greatly improve a manuscript and fix flaws, but on the cons side every scientist has stories about the infamous “reviewer #3” who makes every scientist’s life hell at some time or other. As you start to build a name for yourself, you’ll be asked to review manuscripts, and you should! Reviewing manuscripts is an essential task for any academic and is an integral part of academic life – it is basically an obligation. But there is generally no class on “how to review manuscripts” despite it being a critical part of an academic’s job, and the reviewer has a huge responsibility: your review could potentially make, or seriously hamper, someone’s career. Moreover, doing a poor job reviewing could let bad, unscientific research get published, or even prevent important research getting accepted. To help navigate the minefield of reviewing, here are some tips and suggestions for the novice reviewer…