How to Write a Scientific Paper is out!

“Just wrote a (rough) first draft of a paper during a 3h flight and if it wasn’t for these teachings this would have taken me days (if not weeks)!”
— Talayeh Aledavood, James S. McDonnell Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Helsinki

Rejoice! The book based on my paper-writing posts is finally available! For the price of an espresso or two, a book that boosts your writing at least as much! Go get it!

The book is available from Amazon (as an ebook and as a paperback) and also from Apple Books, Kobo, Playster, Scribd, Tolino, and Baker & Taylor!:

(New to Kindle? You don’t need a Kindle device, there’s a free iOS/Android Kindle app)

If you enjoy the book, please leave a short review on Amazon, as reviews greatly help others find the book!

“I finally finished and submitted my first paper a few weeks ago thanks to advice
given on your website! Your new book is good news for students like me.”

— Timothee Aubourg, PhD student at Univ. Grenoble Alpes, France

How to deal with reviews (2/2) (paper writing for PhD students, last part)

This post continues directly from part 1/2.

One way of making the referees happy is to always acknowledge that they have been heard, whatever it is that they say. Never treat a referee with disrespect, even when what they propose is wrong, or when they have misunderstood things because they obviously didn’t bother to read your manuscript carefully enough. Always give them something.

If the referee misunderstood something that is obvious, write another sentence on whatever the obvious issue is and add it somewhere. Thank the referee for pointing out that your paper was not clear enough on the issue, and tell her that you have now added a clarifying sentence. If the referee’s comment or question is so confused that you cannot even figure out what it is that the referee wants from you, do something about it nevertheless. Pick some sentence or paragraph that might be related to whatever is confusing the referee. Then rewrite it: try to make it more clear, or at least rearrange the words… Finally, write a polite answer to the referee: tell that to the best of your understanding, her problem was probably related to the issue discussed in this sentence or paragraph, and that you have now tried to make it more clear. At times, the referee is confused enough not to know herself what the original issue was, and gladly accepts this act of repentance from you.

The above does not mean, however, that you should always do what the referee tells you to do. If the referee asks you to do something that you feel is wrong or doesn’t make sense, don’t do it. You should, however, explain in detail in your rebuttal letter why you chose not to do it. But, if possible at all, change something in the text, however small. Then, the referee will feel that she has been heard.

It is common for the referees to get speculative and to come up with so-called bright ideas. While this may be genuinely helpful, it can also be a nuisance if those ideas are tangential to whatever it is that you are doing. If the referee asks you to do something that sounds sensible but is clearly outside the scope of your paper, insert a sentence into your discussion section where you mention that it would be useful to do in the future whatever it was that was suggested by the referee.

It may also be that the referee is both hostile and wrong: you know that your results hold, but the referee does not believe you and does not want to believe you. In this case, you must make your stand and defend your results. Be polite, constructive, and firm. Why does the referee act this way? If it is because you have not provided enough evidence to support your conclusion, apologise for lack of evidence and provide more (even if there was enough already). If it is because the referee feels left out (often indicated by requests to cite some of her own work), you can give her credit for some earlier work in the introduction or discussion, but you should not cite papers only because you are forced to do so.

There may even be more nefarious reasons for referee hostility – the referee trying to block competition for instance – that may be hard to detect or disentangle from general grumpiness: perhaps the referee simply had too low blood glucose levels, you never know. Even if you suspect something like an attempt at blocking, be polite but firm while writing your responses in a way that they are also meant for the editor’s eyes. If someone has decided to block your work, you cannot turn that person’s head, but the editor might be able to spot what is happening. And if a referee is clearly being unethical, you should confidentially let the editor know this.

But most of the time your referees have good intentions: being critical is not the same as being mean. If you treat your referees with respect, if you make sure that they feel that they have been heard, and if you always give them something, they will be happy or at least happier, and because of this, they will accept your paper more willingly.

This concludes the series (for now). I may post summaries, cheat sheets etc later. Thanks for reading!

Breaking news: the ebook based on this series is out! Go get it!

 

How to deal with reviews (1/2) (paper-writing for PhD students, pt 18)

Previously in the series: how to write the cover letter

How to write a scientific paper, book cover

After several weeks or months of letting your paper out of your hands and into the cold and hostile world of scientific publishing, the dreaded moment of judgment finally arrives—if you haven’t been desk rejected by the editor in a few days, that is. There is a letter from the editor in your inbox, telling that you are either rejected outright or requested to revise your manuscript so that it can have a second chance. This statement is followed by detailed referee comments that may or may not make sense to you (or anyone else, for that matter). In theory, it is also possible to have the paper accepted as it is, but this is very rare: it has happened only once or twice during my career. Therefore it is safe to assume that there is more work to do now and that you have to get back to your paper. Often, this feels, at least to me, inexplicably painful, because the submitted paper has been neatly wrapped up and archived in my mind. I’ve gone on to think of other things, and now that perfect and beautiful wrapping has to be torn open – what a pain!

When receiving the letter, my suggestion would be to first take a few deep breaths and to try to calm yourself. This gets easier after dealing with tens of rejections and criticisms, but it never gets easy. Especially to PhD students who have put a lot of effort into their work and to whom this manuscript may represent 100% or 50% of their publication record, the moment of realising that someone is critical of their work is a difficult one.

What often happens at this stage is that you directly rush to the referee comments, and read through them at top speed. This is because you want to know RIGHT AWAY what it is that the referees find wrong with your beautiful work. And because you really speed through the comments, you only see the surface, and only pick up words that criticise your work. Your view is distorted.

Then, being a human, you get all emotional: angry, embarrassed, frustrated, depressed, or any linear combination of these. You may feel that your work is worthless, and therefore you are worthless. Please do not worry, feeling like this is as normal as it gets. You are certainly not worthless! We have all felt like this. This is what a career in science is about. Those who survive learn to persist and to deal with these emotions. It will get easier, and part of why it gets easier is that you learn that the process of peer-review can be very noisy and the referees can be wrong (they often are). And when they are not, you can use their criticism to learn and to improve your work.

When faced with a letter from the editor where referees UNJUSTLY criticise your work, my recommendation is to take a few more deep breaths, relax, calm down, and maybe do something else for a while. In particular, if the reviewers are very critical, your fight-or-flight-response prevents you from seeing what is really being said and what the really important problems are, and from assessing how difficult it would be to fix them for a revised version. So, get some distance first. Breathe, get a cup of coffee, look at a video of playing kittens or cute animals, and only then read the letter again, this time more slowly and analytically.

First, focus on what the editor says because this is the most important thing of all. As an example, I and my colleagues successfully got an article published where the referee hated the paper and asked for a total rewrite from a different and quite alien perspective. This rewrite would have been impossible for us to do. But the editor seemed to like the paper and told us that only a few minor things remain to be done. These two requests were completely at odds, but we chose to listen to the editor instead of the referee (nevertheless, we picked some of the referee’s points and cosmetically revised a few sentences, just in case). The paper was immediately accepted after resubmission.

So always listen to the editor! If the editor encourages you to submit a revised version, she is already on your side. Do it. If the editor uses less encouraging words like “should you wish to resubmit a revised version”, do it nevertheless, because even in this case the door is still open. Sometimes what you receive is a standard, copy-pasted response, and the editor takes no stance but leaves you to deal with the referees. In this case, just move on to the referees’ comments. But if there is anything in the editor’s words that you can use, use it.

Next, read through the referee comments carefully and with an analytical mind. First, look at the science and look at the positive side of things: did the referees spot any obvious flaws in your work? If so, great, now you can fix those flaws! Did they misunderstand your results? If so, great, this shows that you need to be more clear in your writing (even though referees often miss explanations that are already there in the manuscript…) Do the referees require some extra experiments or calculations to back up your conclusion? Do these make sense? If so, great, these experiments or calculations will make your paper more solid and you should do them, even if this takes time.

After you have gleaned useful and actionable information from the referee comments, look at what is left. There may be comments that you do not understand, comments that you understand but that you know are wrong, and all kinds of weird debris. The worst comments read like “I am sure that I have seen a similar result somewhere but cannot be bothered to find a reference”. Now, take off your scientist hat for a while, and put on your psychologist hat. You don’t have one? Get one, it’s tremendously useful. It pays off to realise that the referees are human. Humans are not analytical machines; humans have feelings. Your referees have feelings too. Figure out how they feel and what to do about it.

It is really worth the while to try to see the world through the eyes of the referees. Read the negative comments again, and try to understand what the referees think, feel, and expect from you. Do they feel irritated? Left out? Bored? Insecure, needing to bolster their confidence? Confused? Just plain cranky?

The key to getting your revised paper accepted to understand what makes the referees happy, and then give them this (while maintaining your scientific integrity, of course).

TO BE CONTINUED…

Autumn colours for complexity aficionados (photos)

Here is a collection of photos taken on long stroller walks with the little one sleeping, taken in Espoo, Finland, where the autumn is slowly approaching. I took a few photos for fun and then couldn’t stop looking at things from the can-you-spot-the-complexity perspective. There are lots of interesting patterns out there, from spiral waves and spreading fronts to symmetrical shapes. So here’s some natural Nordic complexity, enjoy!

How to write the cover letter (paper writing for PhD students pt 17)

Previously in this series on how to write a scientific paper: ten tips for editing your sentences.

Now that you have revised and polished your draft and are the happy owner of a shiny new manuscript, one more step remains before you can submit it to a journal: writing the cover letter.

The cover letter is, in my view, mostly a historical remnant. Having to write one is, consequently, rather annoying. I can see that there may be some reason for cover letters for journals where the papers are too long to be skimmed by the editors, but even then, I doubt whether cover letters are of any use. Let me explain.

The point of the cover letter is to convince the editor that your manuscript is solid and important and that it fits their journal. But this is something that the abstract should do in the first place, especially if it follows the broad-narrow-broad formula outlined earlier in this series. The paper itself should do the job, too. In particular, the paper’s introduction should contain all the information that the editor needs to decide whether the paper is in the journal’s scope. It should also be enough for gauging whether the results sound believable and important enough for the paper to be sent to referees, instead of bluntly desk rejecting it. So why repeat all this information in a redundant letter?

So a big thank you to those journals who no longer ask for a cover letter.

Was I an editor, hard pressed on time, whose journal demands cover letters, I would highly appreciate a cover letter that is focused and short, say three to four paragraphs, max one page, preferably less. Here are two ways to write a short cover letter with only a few paragraphs and less than a page of text.

The better but slightly more adventurous way is to follow the inverted-pyramid schema that journalists commonly use for news stories. Most scientists are not used to writing this way! When following the inverted pyramid, you should begin with the most important thing and then proceed towards less important things, the nice-to-know details of the story, one by one and in order of decreasing importance. Tell what you have found in the very first sentence or two, then tell why your finding matters, and only then say something about how you obtained your results. Do not write a detailed explanation of your methods unless they are the key point of the paper; the editor is probably too busy to care, and if not, the details can be found in your manuscript. This way of structuring the letter is particularly suitable for those top-tier journals whose editors desk-reject most of the papers that they receive— they do not have the patience to search for the main point if it is buried somewhere on page two of your letter. They want to hear it first and then decide.

As a side note, the inverted-pyramid structure should always be used for press releases; those are read by journalists, not scientists, and journalists only get confused if they have to wade through lengthy introductory material before the main point arrives.

The other, more traditional way is to structure your cover letter in the same way as the abstract, or the Introduction section. Begin with the broad context, and then narrow the scope down and proceed towards your specific research question. After stating the question, tell what you have found out and how, and why what you have found out matters. But please be swift and move quickly: the first paragraph for context and question, second paragraph for the key result, and the third paragraph for significance.

You can also consider writing a hybrid version of the traditional cover letter and the inverted-pyramid lede. First, state your key result in a single-sentence paragraph: “In this manuscript, we show that X”. Then, follow the structure of the abstract and explain the context and the question in the second paragraph, a more detailed explanation of the result in the third paragraph, and an account of its significance in the fourth paragraph.

Whichever structure you choose, put emphasis on the implications and impact of your results. The why-does-it-matter part matters more than the how-did-you-do-it part, even if you have used particularly inventive methods. Do not exaggerate; rather, tell honestly what your work means. Whenever you feel like typing the word “very”, take a deep breath, command your fingers to stop, and jump directly to the next word.

Cover letter: if you have to write one, keep it simple, keep it short, put important stuff first, tell why your work matters.

 

Ten tips for editing your sentences (paper writing for PhD students pt 16)

Previously in this series on how to write a scientific paper: ten tips for revising your first draft

Newsflash: the book based on this series is now available in most digital stores—click here for direct links!

After you have finished with your first pass and are now happy with the overall shape of things, it is time to polish the micro-level structure of words, sentences, and paragraphs. Once again, your overall goal should be simplicity, clarity, and readability. You can achieve this goal by cutting out everything that is not necessary. Condense and straighten your sentences so that they are short, to-the-point, and easy to follow. When editing your sentences, pay attention to these points:

  1. Ensure that each sentence in a paragraph belongs to that paragraph: the first sentence defines the topic of the paragraph, and the rest stick to the topic. If a sentence goes off in a tangential direction, delete it or move it elsewhere; if the paragraph is long and its topic appears to change on the way, split the paragraph into two or more.
  2. Check that your sentences follow one another logically and that there are no jarring, abrupt changes in direction. Tie your sentences together with transitional words. Begin your sentences by addressing the words or concepts that finished the previous sentence, or use conjunctions that refer to the previous sentence (however, in addition, to the contrary, and so on).
  3. Check sentence length; aim at short, precise sentences. Try to make every sentence shorter by rephrasing the idea using fewer words and cutting out words that do no work. Those lazy words include repetitions and unnecessary adverbs and adjectives—almost always, if you remove “very”, your sentence will be tighter. Also look out for wordy expressions involving the passive voice or nominalizations of perfectly good verbs (see below). Tighten your sentences, remove redundancy. Rejoice for every word that you cut!
    If your sentence still feels too long after tightening, look for ways of splitting it. Long sentences are taxing to read because the reader has to hold a great number of words in her short-term memory: about 25 words is already at the limit. You do not need to count words for spotting sentences that are too long, though. You can spot those sentences visually (if a sentence spans several lines, it is too long) or, better, by reading your text aloud. Wherever you stumble or run out of breath, you have a problem.
  4. Make meaning early in the sentence, and keep your subject and verb close. If the first words tell who does what, it is easier to decipher the rest of the sentence. If the main point of the sentence becomes clear in the beginning, even wordy sentences can be comprehensible. But if the meaning of your sentence is only unlocked by its 27th word, the long and winding road there will be littered with the remains of readers who have perished from utter mental exhaustion.
  5. Use active voice and avoid the passive (for exceptions, read on). There is a long tradition in the scientific literature to use the passive voice, probably because the passive voice sounds more distanced and impersonal—somehow more “academic”. But when anyway writing about abstract concepts, there is no reason for making them any more abstract, impersonal, or distant! So it is time to get rid of this tradition: avoid the passive wherever you can.
    How to spot the passive when editing? Easy—if your sentence ends with the actor (“by X”) or if you can insert “by zombies” to the end of the sentence without violating grammar. Whenever you spot a passive sentence, try to rephrase it and activate the verb. “X influences Y” is better and shorter than “Y is influenced by X”. If you use active verbs, your sentences will be stronger, shorter and more readable.
    You do not need to always use the active voice, though. There are times when the passive voice works better; some concepts and elements sound out of place if made actors. It is OK to use the passive voice when the researcher wants to remove herself (or other researchers) out of the picture. Common examples include “it has been experimentally confirmed that” or “it has been argued that” (in particular if you disagree with the argument but do not want to name the culprits). Also, if you want to stress whatever is being acted upon, that is, the receiver (or victim) of action, use the passive voice. “The climate is influenced by greenhouse gases” stresses the word “climate”, whereas “greenhouse gases influence the climate” focuses more on the greenhouse gases.
  6. Avoid nominalizations—turning verbs into nouns. Nominalizations take the life out of perfectly good verbs. And because what was once a happy, active verb has now been shrunk into a sad noun that just sits there, doing nothing, a replacement verb is required. These are usually clunkier and duller, like “carry out”, “perform”, “conduct”, or plain “to be”. In addition to sounding like company-speak, these verbs make your sentences longer than they need to be.
    When you happen to come across nominalizations, rescue and release the original verb from captivity and let it roam free again! Say “we compared” instead of “we performed a comparison”, say “we examined” instead of “we conducted an examination”, and say “we analysed” instead of “we carried out an analysis”.
    How to spot a nominalised verb? Nouns that have a captive verb inside, waiting to escape its torment, often sound like French or Latin—they end with “-ion”, “-ence”, or ”-ment”. Adjectives can also be nominalized into nouns, and there can even be chains where “to differ” becomes “different” that becomes “difference”. The difference between these forms is that “X differs from Y” is much simpler than “there is a difference between X and Y”. And shorter by 21 characters!
  7. Avoid words that end in “-ive”—those are adjectives that have a verb inside, struggling to get out. Release the verb! Instead of “X is indicative of Y”, say “X indicates that Y.”
  8. Comb your text for clunky expressions that are simpler and shorter in plain English. Plain “because” is much more effective than “as a consequence of” or “due to the fact that”. “Although” works better than “despite the fact that.” Do not say “for the purpose of” when you can simply say “to”, or “for”. Search for “in order to” in your text; replace with “to”. Search for “such as” in your text; delete these words and rewrite the sentence without them and it will sound better. For more examples—and a convenient search-and-replace list—see http://plainenglish.co.uk/files/alternative.pdf.
  9. Search for “moreover” in your text. Delete it. Rewrite the sentence using perfectly good simple words – “besides”, “in addition”, “also”– that are common in everyday speech. No-one says “moreover” anywhere else than in scientific journals; people probably use this word only because they saw someone else use it.
  10. Avoid using jargon and complicated words as a blanket, to feel secure. Excessive amounts of jargon often result from thinking that for something to sound academic and scientific, it has to be complicated, full of expressions that no-one uses in everyday speech. This is wrong. The more simple and the more clear your writing is, the more authority it has. It is more difficult to trust a writer who hides her point behind a facade of long sentences and complicated words; these feel like smoke and mirrors, tricks to hide the absence of depth. You do not appear more intelligent if your writing is too complex, to the contrary of what many seem to believe. However, if you use words that everyone can understand to explain complicated issues, Richard Feynman would be proud of you. Science is difficult enough as it is—do not make it any more complicated with your writing.
  11. Bonus tip: learn from the masters. Get The Elements of Style by Strunk & White, and do as the masters tell you. Your readers will thank you for it.

Next: how to write the cover letter

Ten tips for revising your first draft (paper writing for PhD students, pt 15)

Previously in this series on how to write a scientific paper: Zen and the art of revising and, if you didn’t read this yet, how (and why) to write a crappy first draft

“Don’t use big words. They mean so little.” -Oscar Wilde

When editing and revising your paper’s first draft, my suggestion is to do two passes: first, a pass that focuses on the broader issues of structure and content, and then a second pass that focuses on the nitty-gritty, sentence-level details. In this post, I will present ten tips for revising your draft that can be used as a checklist for the first pass; this list contains issues that I frequently come across when working with students and revising papers.

If you have read this series this far, you won’t be surprised to see that most of the issues have to do with clarity and focus.

  1. Check that the abstract follows the hourglass structure: broad context, narrower context, the research question, your result, implications of your result on your (sub)field, its broader implications. Also, do make sure that your abstract is as jargon-free as possible: only use words that most readers can understand.
  2. Check that your paper is focused. Choose the point of the paper and its key conclusion before you begin writing, stick to your choice, and write the paper so that the reader gets the point already in the abstract and in the introduction. Leave out results that are not required for supporting the key conclusion, or safely tuck them away in the supplementary information document. When editing, if you feel that your paper loses its focus at some point, take a step back and do a major rewrite.
  3. Check that there is a clear question and a clear answer. A good paper states and then solves a problem; your results are meaningful only if they solve a meaningful problem. Remember that your paper is neither an account of your work nor a lab diary; it should be a story of an important problem and its solution. Emphasise the problem, both in the Introduction where it should really stand out, and in the Results section and the Discussion. Make it clear to the reader how each result contributes to solving the problem, and what the implications of solving the problem are.
  4. Check that the figures tell your story. If you just glance through the figures and skim their captions, do you get the point of the paper and its take-home message? If not, go back and revise—after all, skimming is what most of your readers do.
  5. Check that the reader can replicate your results. Verify that your Methods section (and the supplementary sections if any) contains everything that the reader needs to know. Also, check that you provide links to your code and your data if it can be released without violating anyone’s privacy.
  6. Check that you end the paper with something worth remembering. This means something concrete. “More research is needed” is a platitude and a vague one at that; better, go for something like “because of the results of this paper, we are now in a position to tackle problem X with method Y, bringing us closer to the ultimate goal of Z”. This is far more concrete and memorable. Endings have power; do not waste this power.
  7. Check that you provide enough background information: your reader does not know what you know. Assuming that your reader knows much more than you and therefore omitting background information is a very common problem with students. A typical example would be a Methods section that directly launches into what you have done without first telling why. Although it is evident to you that to get from A to B you need to do X, this is probably far less obvious to the reader. If you only tell the reader that you did X, she is confused. Why did you do X? Never assume that the reader knows your motivation, or the details of every method you used, or why your research question is important. Tell her.
    Many students seem to think that they know little while everyone else knows a lot—therefore they shouldn’t explain things that everyone probably already knows. It is only later in their careers when they realise that no-one really knows that much! Besides, there will be readers from adjacent (sub)fields and readers who are just learning the tricks of the trade. Use a colleague who works on something slightly different than you as a test reader—ask her which parts of the text are hard to follow, and revise accordingly.
  8. Make sure that you take the reader’s hand and lead her through the text with signposts. Or, in other words, check that your writing is not confusing. Writing is, in part, psychology, and it aims to modify your reader’s state of mind and to influence what your reader thinks. Feel empathy for your readers and try to get inside their heads, assuming that they know nothing or very little. Your empathy should be reflected at the level of sentences and paragraphs: present familiar things first before moving to new concepts, use leading sentences, glue your sentences together with expressions that guide the reader. Use subheadings. Gently lead the reader from result to result, from paragraph to paragraph, and from sentence to sentence. Never leave it to the reader to connect the dots— always connect them for her. Err on the side of caution: papers where things have been over-explained are rare (if they exist at all), but papers that are all too difficult to follow are frustratingly common.
  9. Check that you are consistent with nomenclature and notation. Because you have been immersed all too long in the world of your paper, this problem may be hard to spot for you—using an outside reader as a guinea pig is recommended. Problems with notation are easier to detect; problems with naming things are more difficult. Often, while doing research and while conceptualising the paper, there is a number of concepts floating around, and the very same things can have many names in your thinking. Writers of fiction are allowed to use synonyms for variation, but science should be precise: in the final version of your paper, everything should be called by one name only. While it may be evident to you that the thing you call the weight matrix is the same as the thing that was called the correlation matrix in the previous paragraph, your reader quickly gets confused. Never refer to the same thing with multiple terms.
  10. If you feel that it is impossible to get some part of your text just right, this is often a sign, a message from you to you. When you are stuck with a paragraph that just won’t yield, stop trying to force it. Instead, ask yourself: why is this so difficult? Search your feelings. What would make the paragraph easy to write, what are you missing? Often, you will notice that you are not faced with a writing problem at all—rather, you miss some important piece of understanding. Perhaps your result is not clear after all, or you have not thought enough about some tricky issue and that is why you cannot express it in words. So take a time out, and look for understanding first; the words will come more easily when you have found it.

New to this series? It begins here: Why can writing a paper be such a pain?