Research Manuscript Fundamentals

A friend asked me this weekend to look over & take my axe to a bloated manuscript destined for a high-impact journal. Oof. The manuscript arrived about 40% over the word limit and covering data from two experimentally distinct but thematically linked projects (well, they brought in a third project, which I quickly amputated). Exceedingly interesting theories & data, so I can understand the enthusiasm and desire for a unifying theory manuscript. However, there are those pesky word count boundaries.

Some brief all-purpose advice (some already shared here) comes to mind as I slog through this. Please …. Keep the introduction concise and laser-focused. Don’t restate data from figures & tables in the text (highlight most significant findings, sure), and don’t interpret or comment on data in the results. And take a scapel to interesting data that are not immediately & directly applicable to the discussion in which you intend to engage the reader. Discussions are meant for discussing the significance of results & their place in the current state of the science, not introducing new concepts or plugging other work in your lab (relevant lit citations okay, paragraphs rehashing methods & results not okay). Consider what is most important to convey to your peers and do so in a straightforward, modest manner.

2 Comments »

  1. PhysioProf said

    “However, there are those pesky word count boundaries.”

    The word counts don’t mean anything until after review.

    “Don’t restate data from figures & tables in the text (highlight most significant findings, sure), and don’t interpret or comment on data in the results.”

    I disagree strenuously with this advice. The text of the results section should be completely self-contained and comprehensible without needing to look at any figures (so long as you take at face value the statements of the results). And the figures plus figure legends should also be completely self-contained, and allow a reader to understand the data and conclusions of the paper without looking at any of the main text.

    Also, the results section should definitely present interpretations of the data: i.e., what the data imply about a hypothesis or conclusion. “Comment”, yeah that can go in the discussion.

    “Consider what is most important to convey to your peers and do so in a straightforward, modest manner.”

    Straightforward, yes. Modest? You must be joking. If you want to publish in high-profile journals, people have to see your work as highly significant. If you want people to see your work as highly significant, you have to tell them it is highly significant. And you have to do this as many times, and in as many different ways, as you can.

    Modest has other definitions than humble.

  2. PhysioProf said

    “Modest has other definitions than humble.”

    As far as I am aware, none of them include “grandiose”.

    Speaking of grandiose, the EUREKA instructions are really designed to encourage the most grandiose assertions about how totally incredibly awesome it would be if the project works. They actually state the reviewers will be instructed not to distinguish apps on the basis of the likelihood of success of the project, so long as it is non-zero. The “Likelihood of Success” section is really focused on the past history of “exceptional innovativeness” by the PI.

    Damn, I could spend all day writing about how “exceptionally innovative” I am! It’s a lot more fun than “If the approach described in Aim (1)(a)(i) does not work, then we will apply the approach described in
    Aim (1)(a)(ii), and if that doesn’t work…”

    Actually, the PIs I helped with their EUREKA proposals had the most trouble with the Likelihood of Success section, in which they were, as you note, asked to “describe the past achievements that best illustrate your exceptional innovativeness, your ability to make paradigm-shifting discoveries or solve very difficult problems, and the impact of your past discoveries or solutions.” These PIs were, to a person, modest … despite some truly ground-breaking work and such accomplishments as starting 3 biotech companies (all still doing well) and securing multiple patents (licensed therapeutics now in Phase I clinical trials). They did a little better explaining in the funky biosketch the impact of their 10 most important publications – but were hopeless at self-promotion with regard to their intellectual curiosity & creativity & likelihood to succeed based on their personal history as scientists versus the science they proposed. One had a brief sentence (for this entire section) simply saying the PI had the required skills and expertise to complete the work proposed. They must have skipped the career development course in ego building.

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