Tips from the Top for Would-Be Science Authors… and Editors

Tips from the Top for Would-Be Science Authors… and Editors

Last month, UNC–Chapel Hill hosted Marc Lavine, a senior editor at Science magazine, to talk on “Communicating Science, Communicating in Science: An Insider’s View.” Most of the audience seemed to be students who might someday seek to publish a paper in Science, and I suspected that most of the talk would be tips for authors. I hoped the topic of editing would come up.

Tips for authors

Lavine talked about what has changed in science journals since 2001, when he began at Science, including all the new journals available to scientists, the ability to include supplementary materials with papers, altmetrics, open access, and predatory journals. In 2000, Science rejected 70% of the papers submitted after an initial screening; 20% more were rejected after an in-depth review. And the numbers have only gotten worse. One thing hasn’t changed, though: Science still publishes the best science.

large marble building on campus
Wilson Library on the UNC–Chapel Hill campus

One problem that earns a paper an immediate rejection is the topic or length of the paper not meeting requirements. Many papers fall into a gray area. What determines the fate of these papers?

Missing data or an unclear point might cause the paper to be rejected. An author immersed in research might forget to include initial steps in the paper, or an author might rush to finish the paper instead of allowing a deeper writing process to occur. Lavine also said, “The difference may be the quality of the writing.” The Science editors can’t send all the gray-area papers out for review. If the writing is of poor quality, they might decide not to bother with the paper. In addition, a well-written cover letter can only help. Lavine summed up the secret to being published in Science as (1) doing good science and (2) writing it up well.

Lavine shared the steps that a paper goes through on its way to publication:

  • The author submits the paper.
  • An editor takes on the paper.
  • A board of reviewers performs a quick assessment and suggests referees.
  • The Science team discusses the paper and decides whether it passes.
  • The editor finds two or more referees for the paper.
  • The referees perform a cross review—they comment on the paper and also on each other’s comments.
  • The Science team discusses the paper further and decides whether it passes.
  • The paper enters the cycle of revision and re-review.
  • Science accepts the paper.

He added that it’s best to write the paper well the first time, to avoid a cycle of rewrites. The paper should include the “big picture” behind the research, figures should be in a logical order, data should support claims made, results should be presented honestly (not cherry-picked or hidden), and all possible relevant research techniques should be included.

cover of article in Science magazine
My own article in Science from waaaaay back when

People read Science not for in-depth studies in their own discipline, but to gather ideas from other disciplines. Articles published in Science should have a good story that encourages readers to keep reading. (That said, Lavine also pointed out that it’s better to bore your readers than to lose them to confusion.) Metaphors that any reader can understand are helpful to illustrate scientific concepts. Readers should understand why the work is important now, without the author resorting to hype. The paper should also explain why the results are outside the norm; control data and baselines should be given.

Authors should not submit every paper they write to Science. When considering it, authors should ask themselves, Will the research have a big impact? Will it interest researchers outside its field? Does it overturn any established ideas? Is it my best work?

Lavine shared two online resources:

Lavine gave these additional tips:

  • Write your abstract last, and clarify the importance of your work, without trying to hype it.
  • Have a colleague, particularly someone outside your field, provide feedback on the paper.
  • While you might hope to advance your career by publishing in Science, the editors who are assessing your work do not consider this a reason to publish you, so don’t push this point in your letter to them.
  • Referee comments are intended to benefit the author, not attack.

Thoughts for Editors

While Lavine mentioned the quality of writing several times, I did not hear him advise students on how to achieve this quality. I had prepared a few possible questions on the topic of editing—maybe, “What do you think of an author working with an editor to improve the writing?” or “Do you have an opinion on working with an academic editing company versus an author working directly with a freelance editor?”

student holding book with chalkboard and equationsPreparing questions led me to think how I’d respond if asked. Many freelance editors believe that editing companies pay poorly and wish that authors would work directly with editors. But some journals recommend these companies to authors whose papers need help. I tried to see the situation from the author and journal perspective: why do journals recommend those companies and not us freelancers?

I would argue that direct contact between the author and editor can foster a better result, since a back-and-forth dialogue can best resolve queries; that the low rates paid by companies encourage editors to work as quickly as possible, producing a lower quality edit; and that, as I have witnessed, the second edit provided by a company’s managing editor can result in inadvertent changes in meaning.

From the author and journal perspective, however, the companies use vetted editors and have quality control; they have standard prices and sometimes offer guarantees of satisfaction or a refund; they work on standard deadlines; and they may seem less financially risky, being well-known companies.

This led me to think that, to start recommending freelance editors to authors, journals need (1) a database of freelance editors and (2) vetting for those editors, such as a certification program. It would be nice if the certification program were relatively accessible, regarding cost and who is allowed to apply for it. I’d also appreciate (3) a system that holds payment and transfers it when the product is delivered. If these items existed, would journals start recommending freelance editors instead of the large editing companies?

woman reading book in library

During the Q&A, someone asked if he should hire an editor: would it help his paper be accepted by making his writing better, or would the journal frown upon it because he did not create the entire paper himself?

Lavine responded that he’d be concerned about an editor changing the author’s voice. The problem with editing services, he said, is that while they might be experts in journal submission, they are not teaching authors how to write. Using a service “games the system,” giving the author an advantage, but he encouraged the student to have a colleague edit the paper instead, which, he said, would gain more for the student. He did concede that he does not know if papers submitted to Science have been edited, so he is not sure if editing helps papers be accepted.

My impression was that editors who work directly with authors had not even crossed his mind, and that the authors in the room might benefit from some encouragement toward not only editing but editing directly with a freelance editor.

I also had not considered the role of academic paper editors in helping authors become better writers, although I’d always considered this part of fiction editing. When I was a TA, I spent hours grading papers because I could not resist writing comments to the students about every lost point, hoping they would follow up and learn about their mistakes. So it seems a logical next step to aid authors not just by correcting their papers but by making them better writers.

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