Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Education: Habits of succesful authors

Educación: Hábitos de los autores exitosos

1. Writing a paper: Habits of successful authors,

Is the title of a blog entry posted on May 20, 2011 in a blog on the site of the prestigious web site. It comprises a set of recommendations given by Bernd Pulverer during a talk at the Job Expo held in Germany, which the author of the blog, Rachel Bowden, apparently attended.

The recommendations, which I cite textually next, are short and straightforward:

  1. Consider the final paper when you first plan your project.
  2. Choose your journal with care.
  3. Don't hold back data.
  4. Write a cover letter.
  5. Tell a story, but avoid spin.
  6. Be thorough when responding to referees.
  7. Respond well to rejection.
I am not an expert in writing papers for journals, but certainly I have learned a lot throughout the process, including the valuable lessons after having felt the painful sensation of the rejection.

  1. Consider the final paper when you first plan your project. It is certainly the most important. It seems pretty obvious, but it turns out to be the hardest part, especially when your initial expectations dim, and you appear to sink under the pressure of all the time invested. At the end, however, it is likely that everything will flow as initially planned.
  2. Choose your journal with care. Also very important.
  3. Don't hold back data. This recommendation was a bit difficult to understand to me. Why would someone hold back data in order to please the reviewers? But, if it was one of the points recommended, it may be supported by a reason.
  4. Write a cover letter. As the author of the talk said, it should give another perspective on the relevancy of the manuscript. The general structure of a cover letter can be found elsewhere (e.g., Cover letters: types and samples, Career service department, Virginia Tech)
  5. Tell a story, but avoid spin. This can only be achieved when the first point is clearly drawn in the mind of the manuscript's author.
  6. Be thorough when responding to referees. Applies the comment of the previous point.
  7. Respond well to rejection. This recommendation shocked me. Is it ethical to re-submit a rejected manuscript to another journal? Well, it may depend on the reasons that led to the rejection.
  • If the paper was rejected because the experiments do not provide support the thesis supported, then the whole contents should be reviewed,
  • but if the paper was rejected because the journal was not well selected, i.e., the reviewers field of expertise do not comply with the contents aimed to be communicated, then the author may think again on the contents submitted, and carefully analyze the situation.
2. On the improvement of the writing skills.

Besides those basic rules, it is key for an author to have developed the ability to communicate properly his/her ideas. In other words, it is key for any author to have some ability or skill on writing. For some this seems to flow naturally, but to other this is a problem.

The writing skills of an individual will reflect the aims pursued by the educational systems under which the individual was educated. Thus for example, educational systems whose main purpose is to produce practitioners to survive in the wildness of the professional jungle will give very small weight to promote the development of a such a basic skill which is writing. On the other hand, the emphasis given to the development of a basic writing skills it will be high in those educational systems that are aware of the importance of producing individuals that are able not only to survive but also to propose alternatives to those taught in the classroom. So, why is it important to write properly? Simply because it is the way through which an individual will communicate his/her own ideas.

I do not know the situation of all the universities in South America, but I know mine. I have learned (not yet finished) how to improve my writing skills during my English language learning courses back when I was a high school student. Basically, what I learned is that any essay is constructed under the structure of the simple paragraph:

  • Introductory sentence.
  • Body: supporting sentences.
  • Conclusive sentence(s).
After having understood this simple structure, understanding the guides on technical writing provided in most advanced educational institutions may become an easy task. Personally, I have reviewed three guides on technical writing before my journey into Japanese institutions, and I would recommend them both to any who wish to pursue courses at academic institutions. The documents are:

- "A guide on technical writing", prepared by the University of Newcastle, UK (a copy kindly provided by my former advisor in Bolivia).

- " Improving your technical writing skills", prepared by the University of London, available online here.

- Writting guidelines for Engineering and Science Students. Online material prepared by Michael Alley, Penn State University.

The readings above are recommended, since are essential for the communication of ideas. Besides those links, there are several resources on the web who provide guidelines commonly focused on thesis writting (the extended version of a scientific article). Some examples are:

- Writing theses and dissertations, by Ming Tham, University of New Castle Upon Tyne.

- Thesis/research essay guidelines for discussions, from the International University of Japan, where you will find more interesting material on the references section.

3. Communicating ideas: The importance of oral presentations.

The oral communication of the ideas is as important as the communication of the ideas through written material. The ability to convince (understanding that action from an ethical perspective) is fundamental throughout the career path. Some individuals may have that ability as a natural gift, but the rest of us should be convinced that those skills can and should be developed.

Taking the examples of the conferences, there may be two resources to orally communicate technical outcomes: posters, and power point presentations. Both may seem diametrically different, but the effectiveness of the ideas being communicated rely on a single angle: they both should be able to capture and transmit the idea of the author at the first sight ("love at first sight").

Even though there is no single recipe on this topic, there are certain rules and recommendations that should be considered. I personally would recommend reading the contents of the following articles:
  • Poster presentations. "Do's and Don'ts of Poster Presentation", by Steven M. Block, Biophysical Journal, Volume 71, December 1996, 3527-3529; "Free slides to teach technical presentations", online material prepared by Michael Alley, Penn State University.
  • Oral presentations. "Free slides to teach technical presentations", online material prepared by Michael Alley, Penn State University.

1 comment:

  1. Very useful, my friend. Once again thank you, I have a lot to read and learn now.


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