Visit with the Senior Research Editor
Probably one of the most interesting stories that I have heard over the years has been the true tale of Dr. Herbert Jackson. Dr. Jackson was a Christian missionary who, when he got to the mission field, was assigned a vehicle that could start only with a running push. After a while of debating what to do, Dr. Jackson struck gold he went to a nearby school and got permission from the principle to take some of the students out of class momentarily to push his car. Genius! After being pushed, the missionary would either park his car on a downhill or leave the engine on. This technique was full proof for roughly two years.
Unfortunately, bad health caused Dr. Jackson to leave the mission field, and a new missionary was sent to replace him. Upon introducing the new missionary to the area and its customs, he began to explain his technique of using the vehicle effectively. The new man started to look under the hood, and before Dr. Jackson could get to his "park the car on a slope" step, the man interrupted and proclaimed, "Why, Dr. Jackson, I believe the only trouble is this loose cable!" After twisting the cable into its proper place, the man jumped into the car, turned the ignition switch, and VRRROMMM, the car was off to Jackson's shock! Dr. Jackson became so comfortable with his car starting technique that he failed to realize that it was actually a loose connection that prevented him from putting the vehicle's true power to use!
Has there ever been a time when you have produced great data, but have had great difficulty in connecting it in a well defined paper? If you have been a scientist for any length of time, you would know exactly what I mean. As the Senior Research Editor at the Journal of Young Investigators, I have seen a significant number of papers miss getting published due to manuscripts that failed to adequately explain their work. The research could have been exciting and important, but the way in which it was presented made it appear to people who did not actually conduct the research to be insignificant and nonpublishable. The connection between the research and writing was loose, causing the project to fail. Unlike our missionary however, in the competitive field of science there is usually no running push. But is there a cure for this? Let me give you a few points to think about.
First, create a story when writing your manuscript. Have you ever been to a movie, but left empty due to a plot that was not interconnected and fluid? It made you regret seeing the movie didn't it? The same applies to science writing. No matter whether you are writing a biology, chemistry, engineering, or psychology manuscript, a story always needs to be developed in order to be published. This is best accomplished by arranging your data in a way that anticipates the readers' next questions. For example, if you are discussing the affects of adenine-thymine tracts in DNA bending, you may first discuss how an A tract may influence DNA folding. Obviously, the reader's next question would be "So what happens if I delete this tract?" A well written report would have answered this in the next section. One does not go from discussing A tract influence on DNA folding to the influence of G-quartets on folding, and then come back to the deletion experiments. Although they describe the same relative topic, the flow is nonexistent.
Second, abide by the submission policies. It is amazing to me how many individuals fail to properly format their manuscripts according to submission guidelines. For example, if a journal states that an abstract should be less than 400 words, obey that rule. If a journal states that citations should be a particular format, obey the rule or, if it is unclear what format is being referred to, email the editors. If a journal states that figures should be in JPEG files separate from the main text, obey the rule! Also, do not simply obey 5 of the 7 guidelines, but obey all of the rules! Furthermore, it is a little known fact, but obeying the submission guidelines is one of the ways that editors decide on whether a manuscript should be published. If someone is not careful in making sure that they are following each step in preparing a manuscript, were they equally as careful in preparing that important experiment? As an editor, seeing a manuscript that is not formatted according to the guidelines is frustrating, and organizing everything into a readable format takes time away from us that could be spent analyzing the manuscript.
Finally, write your manuscripts so that they are as specific and precise as possible. It is amazing how many times I see explanations written in entire paragraphs that could have been equally described in one sentence. Not only is it frustrating for the reader to look through pages of unnecessary descriptions, but it also takes valuable space away from the author to explain his point. One of the most important places where this is especially valid is the title and abstract. When a reader is looking through a list of articles, the title and abstract are usually the first thing observed. Therefore make them short, but informative, engaging, and entertaining! If you cannot hook the author into reading your manuscript with the first few sentences, chances are that these first few sentences will be all that are read. You have disengaged the reader in a loose connection.
If you have any questions on how to write better, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, stay tune to next month's Visit with the SRE editorial and learn how to write that perfect abstract!