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Ten Simple Rules for Getting Published

by PhilipJ on 6 March 2006

Back in October, PLoS Computational Biology published an interesting editorial by Philip E. Bourne on Ten Simple Rules for Getting Published (free access, as per PLoS usual). While it is more or less a transcript of a talk given at an Intelligent Systems in Molecular Biology conference on how to get published in the field of computational biology, it is actually relevant to all of us who are new at the publishing game.

Some of Bourne’s rules are obvious (like Rule 5), but a couple of others are less so. Something I hadn’t previously thought about much is his Rule 8:

Become a reviewer early in your career.

Reviewing other papers will help you write better papers. To start, work with your mentors; have them give you papers they are reviewing and do the first cut at the review (most mentors will be happy to do this). Then, go through the final review that gets sent in by your mentor, and where allowed, as is true of this journal, look at the reviews others have written. This will provide an important perspective on the quality of your reviews and, hopefully, allow you to see your own work in a more objective way. You will also come to understand the review process and the quality of reviews, which is an important ingredient in deciding where to send your paper.

This is excellent advice. Becoming better acquainted with the entire peer reviewing process early on will lead to a better understanding of what is expected of you when it comes time to write your own papers. The more exposure to what does and does not work the better. This ties into his first rule quite well:

Read many papers, and learn from both the good and the bad work of others.

It is never too early to become a critic. Journal clubs, where you critique a paper as a group, are excellent for having this kind of dialogue. Reading at least two papers a day in detail (not just in your area of research) and thinking about their quality will also help. Being well read has another potential major benefit—it facilitates a more objective view of one’s own work. It is too easy after many late nights spent in front of a computer screen and/or laboratory bench to convince yourself that your work is the best invention since sliced bread. More than likely it is not, and your mentor is prone to falling into the same trap…

I am going to second the journal club remark—the biophysics group at my school has a journal club during the summer months, and seeing first hand the opinions of others on a paper’s methods, or even simply clarity of writing, are invaluable when it comes time to writing your own papers. Having to defend aspects of a paper which you yourself may think are fine is also an interesting learning experience.

While I suggest you go and read them all, I’ll stop after quoting his Rule 6, perhaps the most obvious rule of all, but one which is easily forgotten:

The ingredients of good science are obvious—novelty of research topic, comprehensive coverage of the relevant literature, good data, good analysis including strong statistical support, and a thought-provoking discussion. The ingredients of good science reporting are obvious—good organization, the appropriate use of tables and figures, the right length, writing to the intended audience—do not ignore the obvious.

Be objective about these ingredients when you review the first draft, and do not rely on your mentor. Get a candid opinion by having the paper read by colleagues without a vested interest in the work, including those not directly involved in the topic area.

Indeed, the ingredients of a good science paper are obvious, so why is it that scientists often fail to write good papers? We’ve touched on this before, but perhaps you have some fresh ideas to share!

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