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Writing research papers is hard work. And it is not just English, as this account – by a seasoned scientist and a native speaker of English – makes painfully clear. The account, which takes the form of excerpts from a diary in the book Seed to Seed by Nicholas Harberd, also demonstrates that all good writing is rewriting. 

“Much of today spent writing the gravitropism paper. Making it into a vehicle of concise expression. Tightening it, making its parts connect. It’s getting to be pretty good. This one’s is also for Science. Will they go for it? Who knows? But I think it has a chance.”

Thus, fairly early on, the scientist has chosen his target journal, namely Science. You can also see that writing the bulk of the text is merely the beginning—the text has to be cut and polished like a precious stone.

“Yesterday I had great fun. Spent the whole day working on the gravitropism paper. At a stage that I always enjoy: tightening it, making it concise, but also putting in flashes of light that point up important things. At times I felt that I was sculpting it: tapping off splinters, chipping away roughness to reveal the form and detail within the stone. Still a long way to go with it before submission. There will be more polishing and discussions on improvements."

Good writing is also recursive: one moment you think you have it nailed, but keeping it aside and coming back to it after a few days can be a revelation.

“And now I’m swinging back again. Yesterday I reread and found that gravitropism paper lacking in so many ways. Full of strands that don’t connect, observations poorly described. . . . It’s funny how every time I write a paper I go through the same things. Get frustrated by the process, knowing all the time that . . . frustration [is] essential to the development of the final form.

“I spent the whole day on the gravitropism paper. Rewritten it from beginning to end. And now I’ve just reread and what can I say? Simply that it won’t do. The writing lacks clarity. It’s still clumsy, lacks elegance.”

So, it is back to the word processor again. However, hard work pays off, and, as we shall see in the next post, the paper begins to take its final shape and moves through the process of sumission.

 

 

["Publish and prosper" is a series of posts about tips for researchers whose first language is not English but who submit papers to journals published in English. The series touches upon not only writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, and style) but everything else relevant to publishing research papers that journal editors wish their authors knew.]

AUG 3

What do journal editors want from authors?

Filed on: August 3, 2012 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

 

Publishing research papers in prestigious international, peer-reviewed journals is a competitive business. Good journals tend to accept only a small proportion of the papers they receive. In fact, according to a recent report of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, top journals like Cell and The Lancet have rejection rates of 95%. What, then, are these journals looking for?

This question was recently discussed in an online forum of the European Association of Science Editors in which a few editors chose to respond. Readers of this blog will be interested to know what qualities of a research paper journal editors consider the most important. These desirable qualities relate to both substance and style, and one of the editors even mentioned “prompt, polite and positive dealings with the editor” (although this aspect will apply only to those manuscripts that go through peer review and not to those that are rejected outright).

The qualities related to substance were the scientific soundness of the reported research, its originality (whether it clearly improves the present state of knowledge), and its relevance and value. The qualities related to style were adherence to the journal's instructions to authors, a clear focus on a single topic, and writing that is not only understandable but readable.

Before submitting a paper to a journal – in fact, before even planning to do so – it would help to keep these requirements in mind. Meeting the above criteria would better your manuscript's  chances of acceptance.

 

["Publish and prosper" is a series of posts about tips for researchers whose first language is not English but who submit papers to journals published in English. The series touches upon not only writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, and style) but everything else relevant to publishing research papers that journal editors wish their authors knew.]

JUL25

Who publishes your target journal?

Filed on: July 25, 2012 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

Most researchers keep abreast of new work in their field of study by regularly skimming through a few journals devoted to that field, especially those serving a particular country or region: many veterinary scientists in Japan, for example, would habitually follow the Journal of Veterinary Medical Science (formerly the Japanese Journal of Veterinary Research)Then there are highly prestigious multidisciplinary journals such as Nature and Science, which report cutting-edge research in virtually every field.

While most researchers are familiar with journals in their field, it also helps to know something about the publishers of these journals. Publishers of peer-reviewed scientific journals typically belong to one of three categories: major commercial publishers such as Elsevier and Springer; professional societies or associations such as the Japanese Society of Veterinary Science and the American Chemical Society; and university presses such as Cambridge University Press and Edinburgh University Press.

If you wish to reach a large and varied readership, your first choice of journals should be multidisciplinary ones  published by commercial publishers; on the other hand, if you wish to reach your peers or fellow specialists, you should consider submitting to a speciality journal published by a society. In most cases, professional society journals are freely distributed to members of the society, whereas journals published by commercial publishers are sent only to subscribers, and these subscribers are typically libraries of research and academic institutions rather than individuals.

The next time you find yourself leafing through an interesting journal, do make a note of its publisher.

["Publish and prosper" is a series of posts about tips for researchers whose first language is not English but who submit papers to journals published in English. The series touches upon not only writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, and style) but everything else relevant to publishing research papers that journal editors wish their authors knew.]

JUL20

Is novelty overrated by journals?

Filed on: July 20, 2012 | Written by Ashmita Das | Add new comment

The pressure to publish is immense; the pressure to publish in high-impact journals even more so for any researcher seeking tenure or grant money. This has been the leading premise of several recent and prominent news articles that highlight some of the major problems of modern science.

According to one New York Times article [1], a big issue plaguing science is the low value that journals place on replication studies. Replication is a fundamental tenet of science: a finding must be replicable for the underlying hypothesis to be accepted. However, because replication studies tend to be less novel and exciting than original findings, they are rarely published. As New York Times writes, 

Even when scientists rerun an experiment, and even when they find that the original result is flawed, they still may have trouble getting their paper published. The reason is surprisingly mundane: journal editors typically prefer to publish groundbreaking new research, not dutiful replications.

This could be a reason why some researchers might be getting away with “pseudoscience” or false positives. As this article in knowledge@Wharton [2] points out, it’s very easy to find statistically significant results that support almost any hypothesis. With the pressure to publish hanging over researchers’ heads, they might unintentionally bias their experiment to get the results they want. Or, if a new or exciting finding shows up, they might rush to publish it without questioning whether it is truly valid.

What’s the moral of this story? First, replication studies are essential to maintaining scientific integrity and discovery. Researchers shouldn’t shy away from these because they are more difficult to publish; rather, researchers should clearly and fully explain to journals why they are important to publish. Second, as recommended by Simmons et al. (2011) [3], researchers should fully disclose their data and make it accessible to others so that the findings can be replicated easily and any false positives can be identified. Sometimes, this can simply be a few additional lines in the published paper to sufficiently explain the methodology, such as how the sample was selected and all the experimental conditions including failed ones. 

 

[1] Zimmer C. It’s Science, but Not Necessarily Right. New York Times, June 25, 2011.

[2] Pseudo Science. How Lack of Disclosure in Academic Research Can Damage Credibility: Knowledge@Wharton. June 20, 2012. 

[3] Simmons J, Nelson LD, Simonsohn U (2011). False-Positive Psychology: Undisclosed Flexibility in Data Collection and Analysis Allows Presenting Anything As Significant. Psychological Science, 22, 1359–1366. 

JUL 9

A guide to effective academic communication for non-native speakers of English

Filed on: July 9, 2012 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

Having written a paper for submission to a chosen journal, you will need to write something more, namely a letter or an e-mail addressed to the editor of the target journal requesting the editor to consider your paper for publication. Similar covering letters are often required to accompany proposals for funding and abstracts of papers submitted to organizers of conferences. Another writing task is to respond to comments made by reviewers or referees of your paper.

English for Academic Correspondence and Socializing [1] is a book that helps you write such covering letters and responses mentioned above. The purpose of the book and its readers are clearly stated: “This book is for PhD students, researchers, lecturers, and professors in any discipline whose first language is not English. The book will teach you how to use English to carry out everyday activities in your academic work, such as writing emails, dealing with referees and editors, making phone calls, and socializing at conferences.”

The book is divided into seven parts: five main parts, namely email, writing and responding to reviews, telephone and teleconference calls, dealing with native English speakers, and socializing, supplemented with one on checking what you have written and one offering useful phrases relevant to the tasks covered in the first five parts.

Readers of this blog will find English for Academic Correspondence and Socializing a useful and up-to-date source of practical advice. In the words of the author, readers of the book “will learn how to

• write emails that your recipient will open, read, and respond to

• use standard phrases correctly, and with the right level of formality

• improve your usage of tenses (past, present, future)

• significantly improve your chances of having your paper published by interacting in a constructive way with referees and editors

• talk to key people at conferences and thus improve your chances of having a good career"

 

[1] Wallwork A. 2011. English for Academic Correspondence and Socializing. New York: Springer. 330 pp.

 

["Publish and prosper" is a series of posts about tips for researchers whose first language is not English but who submit papers to journals published in English. The series touches upon not only writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, and style) but everything else relevant to publishing research papers that journal editors wish their authors knew.]

The hard work in producing a research paper lies, of course, in conducting the research, analyzing and interpreting its results, and writing up the research paper—putting finishing touches to that paper is easy and may even be fun. And these touches also mean that, once accepted, your paper moves faster along the production line.

Using the en dash where you may have used the hyphen can be a simple matter of using the "find and replace" function of your word-processing software so long as you know what an en dash is and when to use it.

The en dash is longer than the hyphen, typically twice as long. The most common niche of the en dash is between two numbers when the numbers stand for a range, as in pp. 15–20 (which means pages 15 to 20) or 20–25 °C (which means a range of temperature with 20 °C as the minimum and 25 °C as the maximum). If you will look at the references listed at the end of a typical research paper, you will see the en dash between every pair of page numbers that appear at the end of a reference to a journal article.

How do you type an en dash? The ASCII code for the en dash is 0150 (you press and hold down the Alt key and type 0150 from the numerical keypad of the keyboard). Alternatively, while using MS Word, you may choose Insert > Symbol > Special characters and choose the en dash (second character in the list).

The en dash also makes it unnecessary to repeat the unit symbols: 20–30 kg and not 20 kg – 30 kg.  

["Publish and prosper" is a series of posts about tips for researchers whose first language is not English but who submit papers to journals published in English. The series touches upon not only writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, and style) but everything else relevant to publishing research papers that journal editors wish their authors knew.]

MAY21

Analyse/Analyze, Organize/Organise, and so on

Filed on: May 21, 2012 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

Do you analyse data, or do you analyze it? If you use UK English, you probably analyse your data; if you use US English, you analyze your data. In other words, this is a matter of style. However, the choice is not quite straightforward, because most academic publishers in the UK tend to use both –ize/–ise as well as -yse, depending on the verb, but, overall, prefer –ize; British newspapers and general publishers, on the other hand, prefer –ise [1].

Scientific Style and Format [2], the manual published by the Council of Science Editors, suggests that “in the frequent absence of clear preferences, a publishing house or journal office should develop its own list of preferences to reduce the need for consulting dictionaries too frequently.” The Cambridge Guide to English Usage [3] devotes more than a column to the issue but recommends –ze over –se.

The Oxford Dictionaries website is particularly helpful because it lists a “small set of verbs that must always be spelled with -ise at the end and never with –ize” and “also a few verbs which always end in -yse in British English” [4]. The Oxford Dictionaries blog [5] offers more details, adding that Oxford University Press “chose the ‘-ize’ spellings . . . for etymological  reasons: the -ize ending corresponds to the Greek verb endings -izo and -izein.”

So where does that leave us? Perhaps it is best to use –yze and –ize if you are writing in US English and to look the matter up in the Oxford Dictionary of English if you are using UK English.

[1] Quinion M. 2003. The endings ‘-ise’ and ‘-ize’, www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-ise1.htm

[2] Style Manual Committee, Council of Biology Editors. 1994. Scientific Style and Format: the CBE manual for authors, editors, and publishers, 6th edn, p.78. Chicago: Council of Biology Editors.

[3] Peters P. 2004. The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, pp. 298–299, 590. Cambridge University Press.

 [4] http://oxforddictionaries.com/words/ize-ise-or-yse

 [5] http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2011/03/ize-or-ise/

["Publish and prosper" is a series of posts about tips for researchers whose first language is not English but who submit papers to journals published in English. The series touches upon not only writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, and style) but everything else relevant to publishing research papers that journal editors wish their authors knew.]

MAY 7

When to use "fewer" and when to use "less"

Filed on: May 7, 2012 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | 1 comment

The word fewer is used much less frequently than the word less; the Cambridge Guide to English Usage, in fact, goes so far as to maintain that the choice between fewer and less “is essentially a stylistic choice, between the more formal fewer and the more spontaneous less” [1].

The adjective little has two comparative forms – fewer and less – depending on whether the noun next to it is counted (a count noun) or measured (a mass noun): few samples, few trees, few occasions but less weight, less vegetation, less salty.

However, the distinction is not always so clear. For example, less is also used in expressing time, distance, and money because the notion is that of a total amount and not separate pieces as it were, as illustrated in the following examples: it took less time because we travelled faster; we covered less distance because the road was bad; it costs less to replace an item than to repair it. Fewer, on the other hand, is used when the components that make up the whole have distinct identities or are counted separately: the experiment was terminated a few minutes earlier than the scheduled time; the rope was a few centimetres shorter than the required length; the amount was paid using a few high-denomination notes and a few coins.

It you think these distinctions too subtle, take heart from the usage note in the latest edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English [2]: “It is regarded as incorrect in standard English to use less with count nouns, as in less people or less words, although this is one of the most widespread errors made by native speakers.”

[1] Peters P. 2004. The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, p. 205. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 608 pp.

[2] The Oxford Dictionary of English, 3rd edition (2010), p. 646. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2069 pp.

 

["Publish and prosper" is a series of posts about tips for researchers whose first language is not English but who submit papers to journals published in English. The series touches upon not only writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, and style) but everything else relevant to publishing research papers that journal editors wish their authors knew.]

MAY 2

Numbered citations in text: some matters of detail

Filed on: May 2, 2012 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

Most researchers consider citing references within text correctly and appending a matching list of references at the end of a research paper as tedious chores. A recent study [1] focused on erroneous references in a single journal and found errors in about one-fifth of the references.

In text, references, or sources of information, are cited either by numbers (sometimes referred to as the Vancouver method) or by names of authors and the year of publication (the Harvard method). This post is about a few minor matters of details of citing references by numbers.

Although citing references by numbers appears to be self-explanatory, there are a few matters of detail, which are listed below. Examine your target journal and format the citations to match the way they are printed in the target journal.

Position of the number (superscript or normal). Check whether the journal uses superscripts for numbered citations. Some journals use superscripts; others print the numbers normally (“in line” numbers).

Surrounding punctuation. Typically, when citation numbers are printed normally, they are enclosed in square brackets (as in this blog post) or in round brackets or parentheses (EndNote, a software package to handle references, typically uses such round brackets). Superscript numbers, on the other hand, are not so enclosed.

Placement. Some journals print citation numbers immediately after the full stop; some journals place them immediately before it. Similarly, when citation numbers appear within a sentence, they are usually placed before a colon or a semicolon but after a comma.

Multiple citations. Separate multiple citations, so long as they are not consecutive, with commas; do not insert a space after a comma (2,5,9 and not 2, 5, 9). Separate two consecutive numbers with an unspaced comma (7,8 and not 7, 8) but indicate a range of consecutive numbers with the en dash (2,5,9–11).

[1] Mertens S and Baethge C. 2011. The virtues of correct citation: careful referencing is important but is often neglected even in peer reviewed journals. Deutsches Ärzeblatt International 33: 550–552 [Deutsches Ärzeblatt International is the official journal of the German Medical Association.]

 

["Publish and prosper" is a series of posts about tips for researchers whose first language is not English but who submit papers to journals published in English. The series touches upon not only writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, and style) but everything else relevant to publishing research papers that journal editors wish their authors knew.]

APR24

Avoid starting sentences with a number or abbreviation

Filed on: April 24, 2012 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

As a matter of style, most journals advise authors not to start any sentence with an abbreviation or a number. However, acronyms are generally acceptable in that position, either because they are words in their own right (such as laser and radar) or represent names of organizations (such as NASA and CERN).

In the “Results” section of a typical research paper, you may find it convenient to begin sentences with numbers, as in “15% of the plants survived” or “48% of the patients recovered.” In such cases, either spell out the numbers, as in “Fifteen per cent of the plants . . .” or “Forty-eight per cent of the patients . . .” or rephrase the sentences, as in “Of the treated plants, 15% survived” or “Nearly half (48%) the patients recovered.” Incidentally, “per cent” (two words) is the more common form in the UK whereas most US publishers prefer “percent.”

The same advice applies to abbreviations at the beginning of sentences: either spell out the abbreviation in full or rephrase. With scientific names, it is common to abbreviate the genus to its first letter after the first mention so long as only one genus is being represented (Aspergillus niger at first mention and A. niger thereafter, for example). However, it is better to spell out the genus in full at the beginning of a sentence.

 

["Publish and prosper" is a series of posts about tips for researchers whose first language is not English but who submit papers to journals published in English. The series touches upon not only writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, and style) but everything else relevant to publishing research papers that journal editors wish their authors knew.]