Writing a new chapter in science. Literally

Books. Like journal articles but heavier

Why do researchers write book chapters? Cutting edge science is clearly in the journal articles and this is always the best place to showcase research. The next best thing is to attend conferences where we can point out our latest research and hope people will find our paper. And then cite our paper.

Yet we spend a great deal of time compiling book chapters whenever the opportunity arises.

The problem with books is that they sit in a library. At my work, that means going all the way down one flight of stairs. I’d then need to carry the book all the way back upstairs. The only real upside is that I’m sure that counts towards a gym workout.

Online journal articles are far easier and more readily available. They are the most current, cutting edge science. In so far as is possible after the months of redrafting.

I’ve heard it said that the amount of effort spent in writing and re-drafting peer-reviewed scientific papers is so great that every ten papers published equates to a writing a novel. Such a great analogy. I think I’m onto about my third book by now.

With journal articles always as the go-to place for the latest research, books may be considered passé. So why do we bother to write book chapters?

Mostly it is because there is something more permanent about contributing a chapter in a book.

The hope that it will make a longer lasting impression than the thousands of journal articles published each year. That someone new to a topic will pick up the book and read the chapter and learn the essential elements required to understand the new papers that are published in a particular field. That the tangible pages – real pages – will hold the knowledge that will resonate through the ages.

And it’s just cool.

Tips for surviving the peer review

The peer review can be one of the most gruelling processes in science. Months of writing, redrafting, coercing your co-authors to actually read the manuscript and then getting them to actually agree on each other’s changes, before finally, somewhat anticlimactically, submitting it to the journal.

After all that you get some unappreciative reviewer slamming your work from behind a veil of anonymity. But this objective criticism is just what science needs. Here are some tips to make the process go a bit more smoothly.

  1. It’s nothing personal

I got my first masterpiece back from the reviewers and it was destroyed like a 5th grade teacher would mark the bad student’s paper. It was demoralizing. I was convinced the reviewers hated me and wanted to see me fail.

But on a re-read I realised that their comments were fair enough. I needed to add a lot more details for a reader to get why I had used those methods. Some mistakes were just an oversight and were impossible to see when I was in the depths of the manuscript re-drafting.

Look upon the peer review as a great opportunity for objective error-spotting. I’d prefer to see these errors picked up in the review stage than in the published paper.

  1. Reviewers are not always right

Early in my publication career I would always believe everything the reviewer said. Everything. They were all-knowing oracles and I was a mere PhD student. If they said something was wrong it was my comparatively inferior knowledge of the literature that made it so.

Of course, more often than not, they were right. But not always. PhD students also know all the latest literature. It’s important to stand by your knowledge. Reviewers are only human after all.

  1. Reviewers are not always wrong

Researchers are great at details and that makes us awesome at flagging errors in someone else’s work. Not necessarily so great at spotting mistakes in our own work.

Before going down the rebuttal road of “Please refer to ‘Thermodynamics for Beginners’ to explain why we did it that way” or “Actually we already explained that in the introduction, Table 2 and half of the discussion”, have another look over the manuscript.

That screamingly obvious point that dominated the discussion may just need to be reworded to explain the point more clearly. Particularly if the journal of interest is multidisciplinary.

One of the great advantages of the peer-review is getting the input of the journal readership before publication.

  1. We’re in this together

Reviewers are donating their time for the support of science. Their opinions are invaluable for making the conclusions hole-proof. Likewise, the researchers submitting the paper may have just missed something in the document that gives the required clarity.  Mutual respect is what makes the peer-review process much less arduous.

There may be many faults with the peer-review system. But it’s still the best process for keeping science honest.