Publish or perish.
It’s a saying that pops up again and again in science. Your publication record is the measure that everyone – from colleagues to funding agencies – uses to judge your quality as a researcher. Aside from helping to get you your dream research grant or university position, making sure that you get the process of publishing your work off to a good start as early as possible will help you to:
- Communicate your research findings with the world
- Engage with other researchers in your field (some of whom might want to employ you in the future)
- Give yourself exciting new ideas for future projects
In short, building up a good publication record early on goes a long way in getting your scientific career off to a good start.
But it can be a daunting task, especially if you’re coming to science as a non-native English speaker.
You didn’t become an expert in cell biology or quantum physics overnight, and learning how to publish and how to handle rejection also will not happen overnight. Even the most prestigious professors are not publishing machines. However, there are both services to help you and your self-education process can be accelerated.
There’s lots of help available if you know where to look.
Below, you’ll find some simple, and even enjoyable, steps that will help to get you going on your way toward an impressive publication record. The first three you can take to make the most of publishing opportunities within your own research project. The others will show you how you can start to look for publications outside of your master’s or doctoral work.
Let’s get going…
Part One: Plan, Write, Seek Help
The most obvious place to look for publishing opportunities is within the research you’re conducting as part of your scientific training.
Of course, this will always depend on the nature of your research project, but in many cases each of the chapters in your thesis is a self-contained piece of research. Even if this isn’t the case, you have probably written a literature review as part of your background research.
Did you know that reviews are often more highly cited than original research articles? Talk with your supervisor about the possibility of publishing your introductory thesis chapter as a review article.
The take-home message is: if you’ve done a good job, each piece of research you conduct is scientifically sound and addresses an established problem or hypothesis – and those two characteristics are the backbone of every credible research paper ever published.
It’s worth mentioning here that novelty isn’t a major factor at this stage of your career. Yes, groundbreaking results will probably be publishable in a higher-impact journal, and if it seems your research is going to lead to something really novel, your supervisor will probably step in to advise you.
But the fact is that most of the time, your results won’t be groundbreaking, but they will be publishable.
Early in your career, simply proving you can write and publish in peer-reviewed journals is an enormous advantage. Nobody is expecting you to change the world just yet. In fact, a simple study in a smaller, subject-specific journal will probably earn you more recognition than a big, sophisticated study published in Nature and that was almost certainly designed and written by your supervisor.
So, what can you do to make the most of opportunities to publish your master’s or doctoral research?
1. Plan ahead
Way before you pick up that pipette, take those measurements, or go out and collect your samples, you should have a publication action plan in place. This can include questions like:
- Who will be the lead author?
- Who will be included as a co-author?
- And, more importantly, which author will be responsible for what part of the manuscript and publication process?
Be aware that, as a young researcher, your supervisor may be the one making these decisions. But it’s your responsibility to raise the issue, as early as possible, because having these details set out clearly for everyone is crucial in avoiding confrontation later. At best, having disagreements over target journals and authorship will slow you down, at worst, it could eliminate your chances of publishing your work altogether.
2. Write something, every single day
Practice, practice, practice. Even those scientists lucky enough to have English as a native language are not instantly great at writing in a scientific style. It takes time to learn how to structure your manuscript, how to set up a good introduction, how best to present your conclusions.
And there’s nothing scarier than a blank sheet of paper. So write something; just get going!
It doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect.
It doesn’t even matter if the whole thing needs rewriting.
In fact, it almost certainly will be rewritten. Editing, rephrasing and restructuring are crucial parts of the publication process but they can’t begin until you have put some words on the page. So just write one paragraph, every single day of the week. By the end of the week, you’ll be done with the first draft of what you're working on.
Suffice it to say, very few people ever got better at writing without also reading. So read everyday as well.
3. Get help
Now more than ever, science is a team sport. Generally speaking, your fellow researchers are a supportive, cooperative bunch who don’t want to see you fail. Chances are, there’s someone in your department who is more than happy to review and proofread your manuscript, at least at a basic level. If you don’t speak English as a native language, find someone who does – they will be able to highlight parts of your text that aren’t clearly written and perhaps suggest ways to rephrase them. It’s not professional editing, but it’s good for starters.
There are in fact numerous outside options you can turn to when writing your manuscript. As a general rule, all scientists (regardless of how good their English is) should read the classic book, The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (there's a great review of it here).
For learning about how to write clearly and concisely in English, there may be no better resource. But don’t forget that simply reading papers that have already been published can also help you to immerse yourself in native English scientific writing style.
Set aside an hour, perhaps first thing in the morning, which you promise to spend reading articles – no emails, no other distractions. If you’re working on the discussion section of your manuscript, read the discussion sections of 10 published articles. If you’re working on the abstract, read 10 abstracts. There’s a lot to be learned about how to structure your arguments from the scientific literature.
Naturally, there are also companies such as ours to help with the editing process. However, editors can focus more on the scientific content, flow, and logic if the authors already have a good grasp of writing scientific English.
Part Two: Connect and Connect Some More
During your scientific training, you’ll have to spend most of your time working on your own research. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t be on the look-out for opportunities to be involved in side projects that might lead to publications with your name on them.
A word of caution here – while collaborating with researchers outside of your own project is a great way to build up your publication record, side projects should never come at a cost to your own work. Be selective about what other projects you get involved in, and remember that it’s ok to say no!
4. Collaborations within your department
You’ve already read that colleagues and peers within your department can be a great source of help with writing up your own work. But don’t forget that you may also be an important resource to your colleagues. During your Masters or doctoral research, you have necessarily picked up a unique set of skills and techniques. It’s quite likely that the knowledge that you have could help out a colleague who is struggling to get around a certain problem in their own project. To make the most of opportunities to help out your colleagues, make sure you go to any departmental seminars or journal clubs on offer. Make sure you go to lunch with others, make an appearance at communal coffee or tea breaks if your department offers them; if you think you have a solution for someone’s problem or an idea that you think could take their work further, let them know! Essentially, if you use all opportunities to engage with your local scientific community you may find that you become open to offers of collaborative work in the future.
Offering assistance to your colleagues is a fantastic way to get involved in other projects. But remember that most of the time, this won’t lead directly to a co-authorship. In most cases, your contribution to their research would not be big enough to warrant being listed as an author of the work. This is more of a long-term game; offering assistance can help you to create new connections, demonstrate your skills and set up long-lasting collaborations that may lead to co-authorships in the future. As such, there are a few dos and don’ts that you should keep in mind when navigating within-department collaborations:
Ask questions or offer suggestions at the end of talks and seminars.
Offer advice for the sake of trying to push your way into someone else’s project. Your main motivation should always be to help others with their work.
Be open to colleagues who come to your desk asking for advice. Even if you don’t have time to help them at that moment, try setting some time aside to talk to them later in the day.
Expect a new collaboration or authorship – simply offering an idea or suggesting a certain analysis does not guarantee that your colleague will decide to involve you further in their work.
Be tactful – it’s never easy to hear criticism about your work. If you have spotted a flaw or would like to offer a new explanation for their findings, make sure you do so in a positive and encouraging way.
Invest too much time in trying to improve other researchers’ work. Your own research comes first. If it seems that your involvement in a side project is very large, it’s worth talking with your supervisor and your new collaborator to discuss what your official involvement is – for example, whether you will be listed as an author or whether you could include the research in your own thesis.
Outside your own department or university, you might have to be more creative to get involved in new projects. As a general rule, most of what you’ve just read about looking for collaborations within your department also applies to looking further afield. However, outside your department, your potential new collaborators are most likely to be strangers. So, what can you do to connect with them?
- Present your research at conferences. Many early-career scientists find this one of the most frightening aspects of their training. However, you don’t need to go to the biggest, most glamorous or expensive conference in your field to advertise yourself to potential collaborators. In fact, some of the best opportunities to do so arise at smaller conferences – these are often more personal and relaxed, meaning that you will get the chance to talk to other researchers without the pressure of an enormous audience.
- Get online. Researchers are increasingly taking to social media to promote their publication record and young researchers are perfectly placed to take advantage of this. The internet is a highly valuable tool and probably one with which you are familiar – perhaps even more so than your supervisors. Use these skills to connect with your peers – even something as simple as sending a message to congratulate someone on a recently published article can lead to an online conversation and, potentially, a new collaborator.
So, are you ready to start building up your publication record?
Science is a hugely competitive industry and yes, publish or perish is still a very accurate description of the way the industry works. But it’s also a wonderfully exciting industry to be a part of – try to see your publication record as just one of the many challenges you have to face in order to become a great scientist. In the end, what’s the point of creating knowledge other than to share it with the world? Good luck!
Kat Bebbington is an evolutionary biologist who specializes in understanding the evolution of social behaviors in animals. Her work has taken her to field sites all over the world, but one of her favorite parts of being a scientist is the challenge of writing in so many different formats – whether that’s articles, press releases or conference talks.