Writing for scientific publication: 3 common mistakes

Marc BaldwinMarc D. Baldwin is the founder & CEO of Edit911 Editing Service. He is also Professor of English at Hillsborough Community College and a published author.

You can find more of his writing and editing advice on the Edit911 blog.

One of the most important things you will do as a scientist or researcher is publish your work. It isn’t just a matter of sharing information—an integral part of the scientific process—it’s also about furthering your career.

Publishing your work in a scientific journal is a requirement toward earning a graduate degree at some institutions. Beyond graduation, getting published is necessary for a career in academia and, increasingly, in industry as well.

I have proofread and reviewed hundreds of original manuscripts in my career as a research scientist and lecturer. I’ve noticed over the years that most mistakes can be placed into a few simple categories. In this article, I will discuss the Top 3 writing errors I encounter when reviewing manuscripts submitted for publication to scientific journals.

Exploring an open future

This article first appeared in Connect volume 6 number 2 pages 14-15. Connect is designed for casual and sessional staff at Australian universities. If that sounds like you, check it out.

A bookshelf seen through a partially open doorway.

The new lightshade, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Two things happened recently that might, in the long run, make life easier for casual, sessional staff and early career academics. The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) was released and the International Council for Open Research and Open Education (ICORE) held its first meeting.

DORA addresses research quality metrics and calls for revision of the use of the Journal Impact Factor. It has strong support from senior academics and research institutes across the world. In Australia (where I write from) The Garvan Institute, the Institute for Molecular Bioscience, the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes, the Bionics Institute, the Burnet Institute and the Victor Chang Institute are all signatories.

While many of the original signatories are medical researchers, DORA isn’t just for the medical research fraternity. The way that research quality metrics are used is an issue of concern to all researchers. DORA says that research assessment should look at the underlying research, not the metrics. The first Excellence of Research in Australia (ERA) exercise showed how journal rankings can be used to compare research across Australia. Once the government does that, universities usually extend the measure to departments, centres and individuals. That can have particularly serious consequences for part-time, sessional and new staff.

For a document written by very established researchers, the DORA (and accompanying press releases) mention “early-stage investigators” a lot. Even though the authors have built their careers around Journal Impact Factors, they understand that rigid use of metrics will make it very difficult for emerging researchers to get started.


What’s a FoR?

Rank and file (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Rank and file (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

The terrain of research grant application is littered with acronyms, new and defunct. There’s a level of knowingness about many of them, and how they are used.

For example, the Australian Research Council is always called the ARC. Not “arc” as a word, but by the letters “A.R.C.”. Mutual confusion can reign if two people meet who don’t speak this same language.

Within research development and grantsmanship, one of the elements held up as a defining characteristic for your application and its fate is the FoR code (pronounced as the letters, not as a word). The FoR, or “Field of Research” codes, came about as part of a joint Australian/New Zealand exercise to consistently categorise research and development (R&D) in our nations:

The conceptual framework adopted for the development of the FOR uses R&D activities according to the field in which research is undertaken and based on the processes and techniques used in the R&D. [my emphasis; ABS website]

OK, great, but what is a FoR actually for?


Public Engagement: Writing an Opinion Piece

Dr Meagan TylerDr Meagan Tyler is a lecturer in Sociology at Victoria University, Australia. She is currently on secondment to the Centre for Sustainable Organisations and Work (CSOW) at RMIT University, conducting research for the Bushfire CRC project: “Effective Communication: Communities and bushfire.”

Meagan has written pieces for The Drum and The Conversation, has been quoted in a variety of publications (including The Age, The Times [UK], and Cosmopolitan), and recently appeared on the TV current affairs program, The Project.

She tweets @DrMeaganTyler.

Academics want their work to be read, and public engagement can be a very useful way to make sure this happens.

There are three main reasons why getting your research out to wider audience can be a good idea:

  1. you have expertise to share on a particular issue in the news,
  2. you want to get the results of your work out to the public, and
  3. you want to raise your profile.

As a researcher, it can be infuriating when you read a piece – in a newspaper or online – that deals with your research area, and it turns out to be misleading or inaccurate. It can be difficult, particularly as an early career researcher, to know how to add your voice and expertise to the debate.

There are several ways you can become more involved, including starting your own blog, getting active on Twitter, putting profile pages up on sites like Academia.edu, and writing opinion pieces. These take time and patience, but they will help raise your profile, thus improving your chances of being quoted in papers, interviewed on radio or TV, or invited to write.

A soap box (Photo by MonsieurLui - http://www.flickr.com/photos/monsieurlui)

A soap box (Photo by MonsieurLui – http://www.flickr.com/photos/monsieurlui)

All of this means that your research will be more widely read, and the possibility that you might actually influence public debate on a topical issue is much greater.

If there is a particular issue in the news that relates to your work, it’s always helpful to contact your institution’s media unit as a first port of call. In fact, if you have just started in a new position or have recently completed a major piece of work (funded project, PhD etc.), it can be valuable simply to let your media unit know you exist and are able to comment on certain areas. They may be able to direct media queries to you in the future, or help you get opinion pieces published.

Many university media units also offer writing and media engagement workshops to help you figure out what the mainstream media are looking for in an op-ed. These can be a great place to start, and are a helpful reminder that academic writing is often a world away from conveying your point to a broader audience in only 600-800 words.


Who works harder?

Dr Angela Dobele is a creative, results-oriented academic with progressive career accomplishments in research, teaching and community engagement. Her research focuses on three main areas: word-of-mouth referrals (including technological communications), gender diversity, and teaching and learning. Angela’s teaching disciplines include electronic marketing, services marketing, new product development, marketing management and integrated marketing communications. 

As well as immersing herself in research and teaching, Angela is a Foster Dog Carer, enjoys Science Fiction and plans on taking music lessons (any day now…).

Fight-Talk (Photo courtesy of FooDavid)

If you’re a female academic who thinks you’re working harder than your male colleagues, you may well be right!

Not only that, you might be working harder, but you’re less likely to be in the professorial ranks.

I was part of a team of researchers (from RMIT and Griffith universities) who found that, while women are shouldering the majority of the workload at each academic rank, they are under-represented further up the pecking order.

Our results show gender equity in terms of workload on five key workload measures, but there was inequality in terms of pay and status. It confirms what many already presume: it is still the case that fewer women are employed in senior ranks. These results suggest, despite policy reforms, inequity continues to be a problem in the Australian higher education sector.

Our study focused on business faculty employees, and showed that female senior lecturers – the ‘middle’ tier – are teaching an average 848 students compared with their male counterparts’ 229. The number of courses co-ordinated by senior lecturers was an average of 4 for women and 3.2 for men.

Despite shouldering much of the work, women are underrepresented in the higher ranks: senior lecturers, associate professors and professors. For example, in one of the universities studied, one fifth of the male staff were professors, compared with no women.


ERA: The good, the bad, and the ugly

Associate Professor Peter Macauley (RMIT University)

Associate Professor Peter Macauley teaches in the information management programs at RMIT University. Before starting at RMIT, he worked for 30 years in public, special and university libraries.

Over the past decade Peter’s research has focused on doctoral pedagogy, knowledge production, information literacy, scholarly communication and distance education.

With colleagues, he has been awarded ARC funding for two Discovery projects: ‘Australian doctoral graduates’ publication, professional and community outcomes’, and ‘Research capacity-building: the development of Australian PhD programs in national and emerging global contexts’. He publishes regularly in journals best suited to the readership for his research; some happen to be ERA-ranked A and A* on the 2010 list.

The Research Whisperer knows Peter as one of the good guys: a researcher with integrity and perspective, who tells it like it is. 

Problematica (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

ERA, which stands for ‘Excellence in Research for Australia’, is similar in many ways to research frameworks used in other countries to evaluate the quality (and sometimes quantity) of the research output of universities and—indirectly—individuals.

In the United Kingdom, they have REF (the Research Excellence Framework); in New Zealand, it is the PBRF (Performance Based Research Fund), and many other countries have similar schemes.

In this post, I focus on the journal ranking component of ERA.

Officially, the ERA journal rankings were abandoned after the first round of evaluation in 2010. Unofficially, the ERA journal rankings are alive and well and used for all the reasons they were withdrawn: job applications, promotions, grant applications and other forms of peer review (the bedrock of academe).


How ECRs can fast-track their institutional capital

Alex Burns is an Australian-based analyst, developmental editor and researcher.

He is currently Research Facilitator in the Research Facilitation Unit of Victoria University‘s Faculty of Business and Law, and is writing n a PhD at Monash University about strategic culture in counter-terrorism studies. 

Formerly, Alex was a senior quality and planning officer for Swinburne University, and a senior researcher with Smart Internet Technology CRC for three years.

Alex also blogs at www.alexburns.net.


In a recent Home Cooked Theory post ‘In Praise of Strategic Complacency’, Melissa Gregg offers incisive, critical advice to Early Career Researchers (ECRs) about navigating universities in their first five years after PhD completion.

For the past three years, I’ve encountered similar issues for ECRs while in the Research Facilitation Unit at Victoria University’s Faculty of Business and Law.

This post engages with Gregg’s ideas, and offers personal advice on two key points:

1. Handling productivity.

Gregg critiques a ‘post-Fordist’ ‘neoliberal workplace’ that values “flexibility and productivity” over the “accumulation and duration of service.” This position leads Gregg to advise a counter-strategy of “strategic complacency.” I’m sympathetic to many of the issues and problems that Gregg raises about organisational ‘routinisation’, and to Gramscian and Foucauldian “counter-hegemonic” critique. But I differ in the solutions.

The workplace transformation that Gregg describes has occurred outside universities for over two decades. It is central to the management philosophies guiding the staffing cuts recently announced at several universities, which can be traced to GE’s WorkOut process under Jack Welch (firing the bottom 10% in annual performance reviews), time-based competition, international research metrics, and the human capital strategies of asset management and private equity firms.

These changes are not going away anytime soon.


Pruning your research publications list

This post is co-written with Dr Narelle Lemon. Narelle works in Arts Education at the School of Education, RMIT University (Melbourne), and is 17 months out from graduating with her doctorate. She’s just beginning to write again, putting into practice all she has learnt from that experience. She tweets @rellypops.

Beautiful cherry blossom tree.

Blossom in the Imperial Palace by Jonathan O'Donnell on Flickr

Jonathan: When you start out as a ‘novice expert’, you don’t have many things to put in your publication list, so you put everything in. As you move forward, though, you might want to favour quality over quantity. Prune your publications list. It isn’t like the roses – you can prune it any time. It isn’t like a bonsai – you can snip off different bits without endangering the whole. Cut it back so that the things that you are really proud of, the things that matter, can have their place in the sun.

Narelle: I chatted with Jonathan about the tension between recording everything in my publications list and beginning to notice that, as I develop as an academic, I need to cut things out.

“Do you know how hard that is?”

I can remember the why, how and when for everything I wrote. Most importantly I can remember the excitement around finding out I had been published or accepted to present at a conference (I can sense you nodding as you know what I mean!).

It’s an odd feeling when the moment arises – one I didn’t think would ever come – when you have to acknowledge that some publications just don’t belong in the CV anymore. They are delegated to a file named ‘you are a faint memory and you did exist but you have been bumped’, and saved to the CV folder for a ‘just in case moment’ (even though you know it won’t make it back in).


Spreading the editorial love

This is a post that complements my earlier ones about building your journal karma and being professionally judgemental.

Those were from the perspectives of someone who was submitting a paper to a journal or edited book collection, and an article reviewer, respectively.

This one is from the editor’s perspective. It won’t be as long as the other ones because, generally, there are fewer things an editor can get wrong.

In fact, some parts of this post are going to sound like an apologia for editors, and so be it. Being an editor can be prestigious, but it most often entails a LOT OF WORK, and a passion for seeing intellectual work (that is not your own!) travel and prosper.

With the pressure to publish and emphasis on getting your paper count up (as well as on the quality, of course…), it is becoming more difficult to find people willing to undertake the task of being an editor. An editorial role is not recognised in any significant way in Australia’s research quality measures (which is a major hypocrisy), or in many academic workloads. The quality of journals is heavily dependent on editorial oversight and engagement, yet these time-consuming and essential positions are given little recognition.

If you are one of these dedicated few who take up the mantle – whether it’s for an ongoing role with a serial publication, an edited book, or a journal special issue – here are some great ways to ensure there’s plenty of editorial love:


Professionally judgemental

“Do you think it’s any good?”

If this kind of question gets you excited, you may well have an assessor’s enthusiasm that will endear you to academic journals, granting bodies, and publishers the world over.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I was a journal editor for about five years. It’s a role that has numerous highs and lows.

Highs? Pulling together a really tight, quality issue. Expanding circulation and frequency. The lavish 3-course lunch put on by juggernaut publisher annually.

Lows? Reading reams of bad papers. Fitting the editing work around an already-packed schedule. Dealing with unprofessional, always-late, or just plain nasty reviewers. It’s the latter aspect that I’ll focus on for this post.

The process of reviewing well for journals is a complex skill. Because of my own disciplinary background, I’m speaking mostly about humanities publications, but much of what I say applies across many fields.

First, what exactly am I talking about? READ MORE


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 12,529 other followers