Ten Rules (Plus Two Cents) For Getting Published

I recently discovered a series of papers from PLOS Computational Biology – the “Ten Simple Rules” collection. These papers by Phillip Bourne (et al.) cover a wide range of topics – including “Ten Simple Rules For Making Good Oral Presentations” to “Ten Simple Rules For Graduate Students” to “Ten Simple Rules For Aspiring Scientists In A Low-Income Country”. There are more than 20 in all and they are definitely worth checking out (especially if you’re interested in a career in Computational Biology or a starting graduate student). “Ten Simple Rules For Getting Published” has some pretty sound advice and although I’m no publishing expert – I’m adding my two cents (the black text) to Bourne’s golden nuggets of advice (the red italic text).

Rule 1: Read many papers and learn from both the good and the bad work of others.

This is important for any Academic – reading papers and noting their strengths and weaknesses will have benefits beyond just getting published. As a figure junky, I have learned a lot by analyzing what makes a visual aid particularly pleasing or confusing – doing this with text and content are just as helpful.

Rule 2: The more objective you can be about your work, the better that work will ultimately become.

Attempting to be objective – thus, being neither overly positive nor overly negative – helps frame your work in the appropriate context and can do wonders for your mental health.

Rule 3: Good editors and reviewers will be objective about your work.

Does this really qualify as a “rule”? Certainly it’s true and good to keep in mind, but there’s little to be done about it. Maybe I’m splitting hairs…

Rule 4: If you do not write well in the English language, take lessons early; it will be invaluable later.

Self-explanatory.

Rule 5: Learn to live with rejection.

This would be my Rule #1. My Golden Rule. Dealing with rejection is a hard pill to swallow for almost everyone (myself definitely included). We put so much of ourselves into our papers – as a grad student, they’re basically the culmination of years of your life and/or the entirety of your career – having someone tell you in an official capacity that it’s not good enough stings. And to hear multiple people from multiple journals say it really stings. It cripples the self-confidence and destroys motivation. Learning to get past that and improve your work (as much as you can) and resubmitting a paper is paramount to getting things published. Rejections are positively correlated with publications – that little mantra is currently helping me cope with the saga of one of my dissertation chapters…

Rule 6: 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.

All true! These ingredients are basically a checklist of what reviewers are going to look for, intentional or otherwise.

Rule 7: Start writing the paper the day you have the idea of what questions to pursue.

I don’t know if this is supposed to be literal or not – I don’t know anyone who starts writing a paper that early BUT being aware that a paper will have to be written at some point can keep you organized and focused. Keeping a list (or folder) of relevant papers and detailed notes on your methods from day one doesn’t hurt either.

Rule 8: Become a reviewer early in your career.

I strongly agree! Being a reviewer lets you see things from the other side. It helped me be more objective about my own work (Rule 2) and deal with rejection better (Rule 5) because it became less personal and let me identify when I had received a less than stellar reviewer. (Psssst – “This paper is poorly written.” is not a particularly helpful comment.) The benefits continue: submitting a thoughtful review is incredibly satisfying. It’s a tangible thing to feel good about, like I really and truly contributed to Science. Find a way to review! (And check out “Ten Simple Rules For Reviewers”.)

Rule 9: Decide early on where to try to publish your paper.

This is kind of like Rule 7 – for me, it’s something to keep in the back of your brain whilst doing the work instead of setting it in stone right off the bat. There are plenty of online tools to help (like the easy to use Jane) and following Rule 1 should be useful here too. Once you have a draft, asking people to read it and getting their opinions on journals can be quite helpful. Hmmmm – now that I think about it – THAT should be a rule! Having other people read your work and comment on it basically always makes a paper better. Perhaps Rule 3 should be “Have peers, advisors, mentors, professors, students, etc. read your paper before submitting it.”

Rule 10: Quality is everything.

Ah, yes. The truest of truths. You can’t (and shouldn’t) publish bad work.

You might think Rule 10 should be my Golden Rule and in a perfect world, it would be. But, in the real world, rejections happen. Even if you objectively think your science is sound, even if you have received feedback that your writing is clear and even if the journal is appropriate, rejections happen. Because the peer review process has at least a small element of luck – luck that the people reviewing your work have given it the consideration it deserves, luck that they agree with the appropriateness of your methods and conclusions, and luck you don’t happen to get a jerk or a not jerk on a bad day.

So…do you have any additional rules for getting published? I’d love to hear them!

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2 comments on “Ten Rules (Plus Two Cents) For Getting Published

  1. So what’s the latest on that dissertation chapter?

  2. jeffollerton says:

    Regarding Rule 7, I interpret this as meaning that you should begin a Word (or equivalent) document that sets out your questions, fills in some of the background literature, and to which you add your methods and references and ideas as you go along. So, yes, literally writing from day 1. But then I write papers in a very non-linear, fragmentary way and typically have >20 manuscripts in various states at any one time.

    As for additional rules, one of mine is a sub-rule of number 9: to aim high when choosing your journal, at least one level (whatever that means) above the level at which you think the paper should be published. The logic here is that peer review can be something of a lottery even in the very best journals, so it can pay off to be ambitious.

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