Even the best research labs will not attain true and lasting success without good communication, be it within the laboratory amongst its members or outward to other audiences. It is commonly said that a research group is only as good as its next publication, and getting that Nature or Science paper (or Neuron, Cell or JAMA  for specialized topics) is always a coveted goal. Yet, writing is seldom, if ever, discussed in the laboratory setting except perhaps as an afterthought. Professors who want to sustain a successful research group should integrate good writing practices into the culture of their laboratories.

 

Here are a few strategies to make sure that everyone in your research group is motivated to write:

 

1. Treat writing as part of the research process. According to the historian of science, Frederic L. Holmes, even such famous scientists as Antoine Lavoisier and Hans Krebs acquired some of their most crucial scientific insights while writing and rewriting their papers, not just during their experiments.[1] Steer the members of your laboratory (and yourself) to think this way, and encourage everyone to write about their work and their ideas regularly, regardless of their seniority or role in the lab.

 

 

2. Dedicate a part of every group meeting to discussing current papers. Take some time to discuss manuscripts that are in progress, engage in different types of exercises or strategize about where to submit particular papers. The key to this strategy is to have a very organized and specific schedule for discussion to prevent wasting the valuable time of all of your group members. Perhaps even require the updates to be submitted in writing prior to the group meeting, and then discuss specific issues with everyone at the meeting to get feedback and ideas. This will not only update you (as the PI) about the progress of a particular paper or project, but it also holds your group members accountable. Another idea is to have one meeting a month just for writing. The phrase “practice makes perfect” became a cliché for good reason.

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3. Read widely and critically. The best writers are good readers, so train your laboratory members to be both. Good research advisors mentor their students on the practice of critically reading the literature in their field. Additionally, nearly every research lab or department has some form of a journal club in which members get together to discuss papers of common interest. If you form a journal club for your group, in addition to discussing the scientific content of the papers, set aside a portion of each discussion to intentionally talk about how the paper is written. Pose and invite questions about such topics as the rhetorical effectiveness, the structure, assumptions the authors made from the results, or the specific language - anything should be fair game. Every now and then introduce a different type of paper, e.g., review articles (if short), editorials, perspectives or historiographic essays, to the mix.

 

4. Make writing into a group activity. The days of single-authored papers are fast disappearing especially in science, perhaps mirroring the trend toward interdisciplinary scientific research. Thus, make sure everyone who was involved in a project writes some portion of the manuscript to develop the first draft. Another option, if time, is to have different members (e.g., who have worked very closely on a particular experiment or project) write up their account of the experimental methods independently and then attempt to synthesize the ideas by working in small groups to assimilate the text. Then, be sure to always give credit where it is due.

 

5. Practice blind peer reviews. Laboratory technicians, undergraduate and graduate students and new members of a research group are often intimidated when confronted with papers that they know were written by the laboratory PI or professor or another senior research scientist or post doc. Instituting a policy of blind review in which the reader does not know the author of the paper (if possible in your group) will encourage more useful and effective feedback. It is also helpful to have all group members blindly review each others‘ papers to provide suggestions about improving the structure, content, grammar, or flow of the manuscript.

 

These suggestions are only a few of the many options to consider to motivate your research group to write and actively think about writing. By organizing your approach, developing a routine, and properly mentoring your team on different aspects of the writing process, soon your research members will be writing papers with ease!

 

In another article , we also discuss why writing and editing are so important for scientists! To receive updates about our future articles on writing, publishing, grammar, and related academic topics, please join our e-mail list!

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Another article on this topic that may be of interest is The Importance (or Not) of Writing in English in the Scholarly Context. You are also welcome to view all of our articles on our Resources page.

 

References:

[1] Holmes, Frederic L. “Scientific Writing and Scientific Discovery.” Isis (A Journal of the History of Science Society) 78, No. 2 (June 1987): 220–35.

 

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About the Author:

Neeraja Sankaran is a historian of science (Ph.D., Yale University, 2006) specializing in the recent history of biological and biomedical research. She came to this field with a background and experience in science writing (Grad. certificate, 1993) and microbiology (M.Sc., 1990). Author of two general reference-style books on the topics of micro-organisms and the human genome as well as numerous articles on science and scientists for general audiences, she has also published a number of papers in peer-reviewed academic journals on various aspects of the history of biology and medicine, including but not limited to, virus research, immunology, and origin-of-life theorizing. She is currently an independent scholar working on a scholarly monograph that is expected to be published in 2018 by the University of Pittsburgh Press.

 

 

 


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