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BITC: Publication Class -- 2. Scoping and Choosing a Journal

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Hello, this is Town Peterson. This is the second piece in our series on how to publish a scientific paper. In this module, we'll talk about writing and conceiving the paper. What should its basic structure be? What are the order of the pieces and the order of your process of writing? This is at the conception stage. We'll talk about a bunch of basic design issues in the publication. A first and critical point is that of scoping out your paper. I'm just going to give you two possible configurations. We can go on the short-and-sweet side, which is a very compact paper that expresses a single point, tests a single hypothesis, and reports a single result. Versus something that's longer and more complete, and maybe more of an overview of a whole body of work. A lot of the papers you'll develop as a scientist will fall in-between these. But, let's talk about them as if they were two options. At the short-and-sweet end, there are a lot of advantages. For one thing, it's a very easy paper to write because it's so simple. It's very linear. You have a simple message and you pose a hypothesis or you discuss what the question is, and you provide the answer. Obviously, in our scientific language. But, it's quite a simple and easy paper to write. And, a third advantage is it's simply more publications on your CV. At least at certain stages in careers, that's very important; you are showing yourself to be a productive scientist. It's not without its disadvantages. If you write too many of them about one subject, short and sweet papers can dilute the message. People will see one piece of the puzzle here, and one piece of the puzzle there. And, the reader ends up having to search for the whole story across a bunch of your publications. That can really dilute the overall impact of your body of work. And, certainly, the publication impact -the citation rates- per publication get diluted because you're putting the same message out there many times. At the other end of the spectrum, we can write a very long paper that might present several hypotheses and several insights. The advantages are that you get more of the whole story out there in the scientific literature in one place. Obviously, a paper like that that deals with a broader set of subject matter has a greater potential impact on the field and is going to see more and more citation. A disadvantage is that it can be more difficult to organize and write a paper like that because it has more complexity. It might have multiple types of methodologies. It might have multiple themes and hypotheses. The message can get quite complex. In fact, not on this list, but also it can be relatively difficult to get a journal to accept such a big piece of work. On the practical side, it's fewer publications that you can list on your CV because you may have packaged 3 - 4 publications into one. Just to give you an illustration of short-and-sweet versus long-and-complete, here are two papers. I just chose them at convenience out of the literature. But you can get an idea of the contrast. Here we have 'Co-occurrence of linguistic and biological diversity in biodiversity hotspots'. It's a single idea: whether linguistic diversity and biological diversity are associated in these hotspots of biodiversity. At the other end of the spectrum is a paper that I wrote a few years ago, 'Predicting the geography of species invasions via ecological niche modeling.' That's not putting out a single question or a single testable hypothesis. Rather, it's laying out a whole body of thinking. This is a long paper. It's difficult to write. It's difficult to conceive and present effectively. But, in the end, it may have more impact than something that tests a single question and may be repeated over and over again. Or, somebody may come back to this short-and-sweet paper with a different dataset or a different tool. I'm not saying that one or the other is better than the other. I'm saying that these are options that you need to think about as you develop your paper. The next question is about picking a journal, which goes hand-in-hand with scoping your paper. Picking a journal is not easy. Everybody misses on this question from time-to-time. And, everybody ends up having to resubmit a paper to another journal. Basically, you should sit down with your advisors and colleagues to contemplate the ideal, optimal outlet for this paper. If you aim too high -if you go for Science or Nature or a journal that's simply at a higher level than your paper is- you're going to waste your time because it's going to get rejected. You also waste the time of reviewers and of the editors. The whole process is volunteer driven. So, if you are shooting a couple levels too high for your paper, you're slowing down the whole process. At the other end of the spectrum, you can aim too low. You may have an important research result; and, if you put it in a regional journal, you get less credit and your work gets less attention. So, we don't want a mistake on either end of the spectrum. We need to consider characteristics of the journal. What is the subject focus? Read the statement of purpose of the journal. Don't think, 'well, they can adjust. And, they may like my work anyway.' If you don't fit within the focus of the journal, look for a different journal. Look at the table of contents and see what kinds of papers they're publishing. Aare they publishing long-and-complete papers vs short-and-sweet papers? Or, are they publishing tropical papers? Or, is it all very detailed experimental work in the temperate zone? Whatever the question is, are they looking? Is that journal interested in the sort of science you're doing? You may also want to look at the impact factor. Is this a journal that is at a high enough level that it gets your work out to the community at a high enough level? Finally, I urge you to pay attention to the journal's policies about access. Does the journal publish with an eye to making your work available to the whole scientific community? Or, are their publications only available to those who are willing or able to pay for them? We'll come back to this at the end of this module when we talk about open access considerations. A last set of comments about this conceiving your paper stage is my experience with one solution of how best to enter this process of writing your paper. This isn't the only way to do it. This is just something that works for me. I hope that over the course of your career, you evolve your own solution. But, this is something that I think works well. I would suggest this order of writing. First, you develop your figures and your tables. These are the unitary results of your paper. These are the pictures that tell the story that you're going to be relating in this paper. You can go directly from your figures and tables to your methods and results. The methods have to tell in a very clear and concise way, how you got from basic input data to the figures and tables that you're presenting in your paper. And, the results should describe, one-by-one, those results. There may be a paragraph in the results for each figure. It may take a couple paragraphs. These figures and tables tell you how to structure the methods and results. That's the core of your paper. After that, I think is an appropriate time to frame it. Of course, you've been thinking about this framing all along. But, as you go through your results, as you prepare those figures and tables, as you write your methods, I think it leads you to think more deeply about what it is you're expressing in this paper. After you have the core done is the best time to write an introduction that poses the questions; and write a discussion that considers their impact, discusses caveats and limitations, and lays out next steps. Finally, the abstract is your summary of the paper. That's easiest to write at the end of the process even though the abstract comes at the beginning of the paper. A couple other points. At the end of this introduction, your last paragraph needs to clearly state why the paper needs to be published. What is the contribution of this paper to the broader literature? I feel that the last paragraph of the introduction should begin, 'This paper does the following...' I think that is an effective way of leading into the rest of your paper. Your introduction gives the rationale of why the reader should care. And that last paragraph lays out exactly what it is that this paper is going to do given that rationale. I see a common tendency for people to go on at great length in the introduction and discussion of these papers. An introduction may only be three paragraphs. That may be enough to set up the question, particularly when we're talking about short-and-sweet papers. The discussion may be a bit longer; but, it needs to give the panoramic view of the results of the paper. It needs to discuss the limitations of the paper. And, it needs to discuss its implications towards future work, or the next steps. A very specific pet peeve of mine is repetition. There's no need to repeat parts of the introduction in the discussion or parts of the results in the discussion. I think oftentimes a conclusion section is an excuse to repeat what's already been said in the results and the discussion. So, contemplate whether you really need to say things twice. The words are there once. That's plenty for an attentive reader to capture. So, that's a set of thinking about the basic design and concept of your paper. Now, we're going to go on to talk about more specifics in the coming parts of this module.

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Duration: 13 minutes and 50 seconds
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Language: English
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Posted by: townpeterson on Jul 5, 2016

Publication Class: How to Publish a Scientific Paper

A. Townsend Peterson, University of Kansas
In English

Academic productivity and effective communication of research results depend critically on publishing scientific articles in scholarly journals. This set of 13 video segments aims to provide an overview of the entire publishing process. It is not specific to biodiversity informatics, but rather can be quite general for the natural sciences at least.

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