Why Writing and Editing are So Important for ScientistsNeeraja Sankaran, Ph.D. | 2016-11-16
The first thing that comes to mind when I consider why writing and editing are so important for scientists is the image of the Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt. They are ancient marvels of engineering, and therefore science, that would count as formidable feats of design and construction even today. But for centuries, they were the subjects of myth and mystery, and their construction was ascribed to aliens or gods, rather than science and human effort.
As I’ve often told students in scientific literacy and writing classes, many of the nonsensical theories about the origins and role of the pyramids stem from the fact that so little of what was written down about them survived, or at least so well hidden that for many centuries people had no access to the information. Which brings me to the first of many compelling reasons for why I think writing and publishing–getting things down in the record–are so important for scientists: for posterity.
Of course, not every achievement is as impressive or long lived as the pyramids. But the scale of posterity need not be millennia, centuries, or even decades. In the context of a single laboratory, we are talking about writing as a tool for maintaining continuity at the scale of the day to day. A lab is a dynamic unit with a constantly shifting population of people–research scientists, graduate students, post-docs, and visiting researchers–under a single PI. To make real progress toward producing new knowledge and scientific discoveries, it is vital that the group not reinvent the wheel every time there is a change. Writing is, therefore, an instrument of a collective memory of a research group.
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However, writing is more than simple record keeping. It is also a vital tool for analysis for scientists. Science often involves repetition, but as most of us know from experience, repetition is seldom, if ever, an exact duplication. Sometimes, it is the small variations that lead to meaningful results. Without a daily record of research activities, however, it is difficult to track variations and trends, much less determine their source or cause.
As important as writing is for a research group or for dissemination to other researchers, it is also vital at the individual level. Many of the reasons, such as its role in memory and analysis, are similar. Here are some additional reasons for scientists to write regularly:
- Writing hones your critical thinking skills. The act of writing forces one to think about what information to include and what to leave out, to examine evidence, make arguments, find your own evidence, and organize thoughts. It makes one a better thinker, and hence, a better scientist.
- Writing maintains good discipline. Writing is like a daily workout–only the core here is the brain not the abdomen. Just as regular exercise at the gym keeps your core muscles strong and ready for action when needed, writing keeps your thinking supple and your mind engaged. So, come time to write that critical research paper, you will already be ahead in the game.
- Writing sharpens your interpersonal skills. Counter-intuitive as this claim may seem, it is true. Even though writing is a solitary act, its primary purpose is communication. With better communication, one works better with other people.
- Improvement through introspection. The famous Oscar Wilde once said, “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” While not all of us can aspire to Mr. Wilde’s standards of literary excellence, his idea to travel with one’s diary at all times is sound. For even if there is nothing sensational to read, there is always something to write.
Hand-in-hand with writing is the issue of writing well, which is where editing comes in. There isn’t a piece of writing in the world that cannot be improved with judicious editing. Proofreading (by the authors themselves) is just the first step in editing an article and is itself a two-stage process. First, it includes a substantive overview to make sure the article communicates everything concisely, correctly, and appropriately, and the second review is a checkpoint to make sure that the copy is free of spelling and grammatical errors. However, these two steps may be difficult if your knowledge of English grammar, spelling, phrasing, and diction aren‘t that of an English wiz. Falcon Scientific Editing’s Resources for authors provide valuable grammar tips and tricks that will be of help to you.
Peer-editing by a colleague or supervisor who knows your field is a good way to check facts and ensure accuracy, but equally useful is a read-through by an outsider, as a test for clarity and readability. Colleagues and supervisors are typically great content editors and will provide a good pre-peer review, but they may not focus on improving the English grammar, spelling, phrasing, or diction of your paper (unless this is specifically their field or they have a preference for perfect grammar).
This is where professional editors, such as the PhD expert editors at Falcon Scientific Editing, come in. Falcon Scientific Editing can polish your manuscript (provide editing and proofreading) so that the journal editor and peer reviewers will focus on your scientific content and not the quality of your English!
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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.
Topics : Editing Scientific Writing