What is scientific creativity—and how do you feed it? (Part I)

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Last winter, on a speaking trip to Norrköping, someone asked me to write about skills (and meta-skills) that scientists and PhD students need, beyond writing papers. Turns out that this is a lot more difficult than writing about writing, where the end product—a scientific paper—is something tangible and amenable to analysis: how do great introductions look like? How do the greatest writers finish their papers? It is much more difficult to write, say, about learning to be creative, which is what I shall try to do here. But what would be more important for aspiring scientists than creativity?

Science is all about creativity: coming up with the right questions, developing clever methods to answer those questions, and connecting the answers in imaginative ways to learn something greater. But we rarely talk about creativity as a skill—often, people view it as something that you either have or don’t have, just like an ear for music or an eye for design. And just like with music and design, this view is wrong: everything can be learned. So how do you learn to be creative?

Before attempting to answer this question, let’s take the bull by the horns and ask what creativity is. If by creativity we mean the ability to bring forth ideas that are entirely new, we are immediately hit by a very difficult, philosophical question: where do new ideas come from? At least to us (recovering ex-) physicists, the emergence of something that wasn’t there before is kind of strange: aren’t there conservation laws that forbid this kind of travesty from happening? What is it that gives birth to new information (because that is what happens when a new idea emerges, whether it is a question or an answer)?

If physics doesn’t provide us with answers, let’s drop it for a while and put on the hat of a biologist: in the realm of living things, don’t new things gradually emerge, driven by the slow Darwinian evolution? Notice the word “gradually”—biological evolution is slow tinkering, a process where existing forms and shapes and organs are gradually transformed into something new, of dinosaurs developing feathers that eventually help some of them to learn to fly, of finches’ beak shapes adapting to their habitats. So in biological evolution, everything that is “new” is built on top of a lot of something old, and this happens slowly: a slow expansion into the adjacent possible, if you’ve read your Kauffman.

Are there some other natural processes where new forms emerge more rapidly? The human immune system provides a great example. Somewhat surprisingly, not all our cells carry the same sets of genes: the T and B cells of our immune system, our ultimate smart weapons against viruses and other invaders, display an enormous diversity of different receptors that recognise those invaders. This diversity results from those cells carrying some randomised (but not too randomised) parts of our genome. The precursor cells that eventually become T and B cells have strings of different modules in their genetic code, and in the process of randomisation, some of those modules are randomly picked and joined together (the rest are discarded). Then, a bit of extra randomness (extra letters, deleted letters, and so on) is added to their junction. So to arrive at new kinds of receptors, our bodies randomly merge things that are known to work (those receptor modules) and then add some noise on top. Again, “new” equals “old, but with added something.”

Let’s now return back to creativity, in the context of science or otherwise. The above examples point out that the old rhyme—“something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue”—is scientifically highly accurate, except for the blue bit perhaps. In other words, the things that we think are new are in fact modifications and clever combinations of old things, with perhaps some small amount of additional randomness. Ideas do not live in a vacuum, they emerge because of other ideas.

Therefore, creativity is the ability to merge existing ideas in new ways (while possibly adding a magic ingredient on top).

This brings us to a fairly simple recipe for feeding one’s creativity: collect lots of things that can be combined/transmogrified into something new, and then just combine them! In other words, first, feed your head with lots of information—and not just any information, but preferably pieces of information that haven’t yet been combined.

To maximise the chance of something entirely new emerging out of this process, your input information—the stuff that you feed your head with—should be diverse enough. There are, however, different possibilities: on the one hand, if you know everything that there is to know about your field, you can probably see where the holes are and combine bits of your knowledge in order to fill them. On the other hand, if you know enough about a lot of fields, you might be able to spot connections between them (think of, say, network neuroscience, applying network theory to problems of neuroscience). There are different styles here, but even if you choose to go deep instead of wide, do keep the diversity of input information in mind: just for fun, learn some mathematical techniques that people do not (yet) use in your field! You never know, those might turn out to be useful later.

To be continued…

How to Choose the Title for Your Paper

“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” ― Stephen King

How to Write a Scientific Paper book cover

This post is a chapter from the book “How to Write a Scientific Paper.”

After you have written your abstract, the next task is to consider the title of your paper. If the abstract is a compressed version of your storyline, the title of your paper is even more so. Titles are hard—it is often surprisingly difficult to come up with a short, informative, and catchy title. For me, this has at times felt like the hardest part of writing a paper.

The title of the paper serves a dual purpose: it delivers information by telling readers what your paper is about, and it serves as a marketing tool that makes others want to read your paper. Unfortunately, unlike the abstract, there is no general-purpose formula to follow when thinking of a title. There are, however, some points that you should consider.

The title has to be in perfect sync with the abstract—they have to tell the same story. Make sure that your title and abstract use the same words and concepts. Also, make sure that everything that is mentioned in the title is discussed in the abstract.

Use words that everyone in your target audience can understand. Avoid subfield-specific jargon. Simply does it! The paper’s title should only contain concepts that can be understood on their own, without any explanation. While there is some room in the abstract for explaining one or two important concepts in brief, there is no such luxury in the title: the reader should already be familiar with every word used in it.

The title should be focused and clear. If it is possible to give away the main result in the title, do so. Avoid vague titles, such as “Investigating Problem X with Method Y”. Instead, go for something more concrete: “Investigating Problem X with Method Y Reveals Z.”

A small request: please never, ever use a title of the “Towards Understanding Problem X” variety. Just don’t do it. Pretty please. If your research is worth publishing, you have arrived somewhere. Just be confident and tell the reader where this is, instead of telling them where you would rather have gone! It is OK to say something about the bigger picture in the title, as long as your key point plays a leading role. But to keep your title concise, it may be better to describe long-term goals elsewhere in the paper.

It helps if the title is catchy as well as informative. But do not exaggerate—consider how your title will look 10 years from now. Will it stand the test of time? If the title is too gimmicky or contains a joke that becomes stale after you’ve heard it a few times, it won’t. You should also avoid jargon and buzzwords that may go out of fashion before the paper gets published.

Consider search engines and online search. Your paper needs to be found if it is to be read, so the title should contain the right keywords or search terms. As a network scientist, I almost always include the word “network” in my paper titles, even if this makes the title longer or if other network scientists would understand the title perfectly well without networks being explicitly mentioned. Without the word “network”, they would not necessarily find my paper when they hunt online for new reading material.

Keep your title short. Research has shown that shorter titles attract more citations—see Letchford et al., R. Soc. Open Sci. 2(8):150266 (2015). This should not come as a big surprise: long and cluttered titles are not as contagious as simple, focused ones. If the title is convoluted and hard to grasp, then the paper probably is too.

Sometimes there are field-specific conventions that you should be familiar with. In some biomedical fields, for example, the paper’s title often expresses just the key result—“Transcription Factor X is Involved in Process Y”—and the titles can be fairly long. In some areas of physics and computer science, shorter and less informative titles are the norm. Have a look at other papers in your field, and try to imitate their best titles.

If you get stuck at this point and find it hard to decide on the title, it might be easier to initially lower your bar a bit. Just come up with some candidate titles that do not have to be perfect. Then ask your colleagues—your fellow PhD students, your supervisor, anyone—to have a look at the list and to pick the most promising candidates for refinement and final polishing.

Get the ebook from your favourite digital store! Paperbacks are available too (Amazon only!)

Cheatsheet: How to Revise Your 1st Draft (2/2)

Here is the second cheatsheet on how to revise the first draft of your scientific paper, focusing on sentences and words. (Here is the first one if you missed it). Enjoy!

For a hi-res PDF, please click here!

Want more? In my book How to Write a Scientific Paper you’ll learn a systematic approach that makes it easier and faster to turn your hard-won results into great papers. Or check out the series of posts that starts here.

Cheatsheet: How to Revise your 1st Draft

Cheatsheet: How to Revise Your 1st Draft (1/2)

Hi all,

as I hinted at earlier, I’ll be releasing a couple of cheatsheets on scientific writing based on the writing series/book, mostly because I love to play with Adobe Illustra^H^H^H because I’m sure you’ll find them useful 🙂

Here’s the first one; click here for a high-res PDF version.

Want more? Get my little writing guide where you’ll learn a systematic approach to writing papers that makes the whole thing easier, faster, and less painful: How to Write a Scientific Paper!

Cheatsheet: How to Revise Your 1st Draft

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

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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…