All that’s LEFT is to WRITE

As a PUI researcher, I struggle to protect my research time with students. When it comes time to write the publication…how can I get it all done? In this post, Dr. Keri Colabroy elaborates on advice that first appeared as a workshop facilitated by Dr. Joe Provost and Dr. Carla Mattos during ASBMB’s 2011 symposium on Student Centered Education in the Molecular Life Sciences. 


Planning and conducting research for PUI Faculty is a constant competition for time. As PUI researching faculty, we need to think about research in terms of a hypothesis driven publication. That is how we can plan the types of research experiments and controls necessary to focus the efforts of undergraduates. Dorothy….you aren’t in grad school anymore…

Be efficient or be unpublished

You don’t think you have the time, but really – you have  to review the current literature early and often – don’t wait because you are busy. It can take a while for PUI’s to finish a publication – this isn’t grad school anymore. The speed at which you do experiments and acquire data…well – let’s just say, it’s a bit slower. Stay ahead of the game and keep up with the relevant publications in the field as you go; this will allow you to shape the direction of your experiments in response to the literature as it develops.

Stay ahead of the game and keep up with the relevant publications as you go; this will allow you to shape the direction of your experiments in response to the literature as it develops.

Be efficient early in your experiment planning process.

An effective strategy can be to plan each experiment as a figure. Using the paper’s main question as a framework, sketch out each figure BEFORE the experiments are started. After the big question has guided you through a few cool experiments, it is time to get things in “paper order”.  Think of it as a: If this is true, then what should the data look like… format for each figure.  This will help you design the individual experiment, and it’s a good way to plan what controls need to be included.  This philosophy will keep you from following “side trails” or “fishing experiments”. “Side trails” are fun in grad school – when you have 14 hours a day in the lab – but at this stage, a “side trail” is project that you will explore and develop later on.

Be efficient – Know when to cut bait or fish.

Is the technique not working?  Does the experiment need to change in order to answer the question?  Are the “bench hands” the problem, or is the hypothesis wrong? How many times does one experiment need to be repeated?

Controls, controls, controls…Don’t neglect the controls. Control experiments can reveal a problem with student technique, reagent quality or experimental design before you spend months of time on it. Plus, PUI faculty often will be asked to do more control experiments when a publication is reviewed, so it is worth the time to plan ahead. Control experiments also great experiences for new research students!

Control experiments can reveal a problem with student technique, reagent quality or experimental design before you spend months of time on it.

Be efficient in your student’s time – consider using a team approach to a paper. Each student or student team could work on one or two connected figures; all put together will form a paper. Make students repeat experiments to create publication quality figures, including statistical analysis and figure legends.

Be disciplined: Protect your time

You’ll never write a paper if you wait until you “just have some free time”.

You’ll never write a paper if you wait until you “just have some free time”. Absolutely, use those times when students aren’t around – fall break, spring break; but you also need to carve out time to write during the semester. Close your door and  put up a sign “don’t feed the bear.” The time you dedicate to writing about your scholarship is as important as the time spent doing the experiments. Value that time and preserve it. And don’t wait until all the experiments are complete – big mistake. Writing the paper helps you see the holes, and putting the argument together reveals the weak points in the logic.  All things you want to find while experimentation is ongoing and the results are rolling in.

Be ready to write

In order to find an appropriate journal in which to publish your work, consider the type of papers in that journal. What are the implicit standards? Where are papers in your field typically published? When you have decided on a journal, read the instructions to authors and get two or three examples from that journal of similar papers to use as templates. Note the standards for grammar and syntax for that journal and field. What verb tense is being used? Beware – the tense could change depending on the section!

Your figures are largely done already, because you have planned your experiments as part of figures. The next easiest section to write is the methods, followed by the results, and then the discussion. Clearly distinguish between what you can conclude and what you can only suggest – limit the amount of speculation. Leave the introduction until last, when you know what to introduce.  Be explicit in stating the goal of the research described – a question to be answered, a quantity to be measured, a protein to be isolated etc.

In the end, all the best papers “tell a story” about the science. Your data make the best story when they are grouped logically – not necessarily chronologically.

The introduction is all about contextualizing your work. While you are reading the literature (see my earlier point…), put the papers into subfolders (paper or electronic) that you can easily reference later. For example, collect the papers and sort them based on whether they are references that address impact, methods, previous work done in/on this system etc – separate and pile them up. I also organize mine by date of publication and by corresponding author. This saves me time when writing the manuscript.

In the end, all the best papers “tell a story” about the science. Your data make the best story when they are grouped logically – not necessarily chronologically. Grouping the experiments and crafting the argument with a logic that appeals to others can be the difference between a well-received paper or a manuscript that is heavily criticized by reviewers. Presenting the logic or flow of the argument to a colleague or peer scientist can help you avoid the “tunnel vision” that can come from working closely with the data for so long.

Come back next week for some tips from journal editors!

References:

  • Algorithm for writing a scientific manuscript.  O’Connor and Holmquist.  Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education.  Vol 37, pp. 344-348.  2009
  • Ten principles to improve the likelihood of publication of a scientific manuscript. Provenzale. American Journal of Roentgenology.   188, May 2007
  • An approach to the writing of a scientific maniscript. Cetin and Hackam. Journal of Surgical Rsearch Vol 128, 165-167. 2005
  • Writing readable prose.  Brendan and van Roy. EMBO reports Vol 7, 846. 2006
  • Writing a scientific manuscript.  Highlights for success. Spector. J Chem Ed. Vol 71, 47. 1994

6e164a_67ee223822044abdb5e42e3a6cbdb8d0~ Dr. Keri Colabroy is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Muhlenberg College, where she does enzymology research with undergraduates when she isn’t teaching organic or biochemistry. She blocks off one 4 hour period of time each week to write. This semester it is on Wednesday afternoons. Dr. Joe Provost is her friend, and she is very thankful that he so agreeably shares his material and insights for this blog.

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