Everything I needed to know about putting a commercial book out in the world, I learned from 20 years in academia... not!
Here's my guide to navigating the differences in norms and expectations between the worlds of scholarly articles and commercial books.
Feel free to reuse with attribution. Click on the image below to download the full-resolution PDF with live links.
Originally presented at the Ecological Society of America annual meeting, August 2021. Thanks to Emma Li Johansson of Lilustrations for design.
Good luck writing!
This is a tough and thankless job, but science depends on it! Here are a few principles I keep in mind when suggesting (to journals that ask for them) or soliciting (when I'm an editor) peer reviewers.
When identifying reviewers for a particular paper, I try to find a balance of:
Where to find reviewers?
(Along those lines- if you’re publishing make sure you’re giving back to the community by serving as a peer reviewer and/or editor yourself! Read my guide to writing a solid peer review or how to get started, and register as a potential reviewer with journals in your field).
See guidelines for picking reviewers: https://methodsblog.wordpress.com/2015/10/15/preferred-reviewers/
For the PNAS guidelines see here: http://m.pnas.org/site/authors/coi.xhtml
Springer, Conflict of Interest: http://www.springer.com/authors/manuscript+guidelines?SGWID=0-40162-6-795522-0
Article on COI in medicine: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2246405/
I remember being confused about what was expected of scientific authorship in grad school. My mentor Pam Matson had a helpful rule of thumb: there are three things you can do to contribute to a scientific paper: (1) have the idea, (2) get the money, and (3) do the work. At least two of these three are required for authorship. (Thus, under this model, a PI who has an idea and gets funding to support a PhD student on that theme would be expected to be a coauthor on all resulting papers.)
I appreciate having clear guidelines and expectations for authorship, so I was glad to come across the authorship guidelines from the Vancouver Convention. Basically, they recommend 4 criteria for authorship (all four criteria must be met for authorship):
1. Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
2. Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
3. Final approval of the version to be published; AND
4. Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.
This is the model I aim to follow in my collaborations. Thus, I expect myself and all authors to make a substantial intellectual contribution (#1) and contribute to writing and editing the manuscript (#2).
I interpret #3 above as the lead (first) author has responsibility to solicit and integrate input from all authors in making revisions, and obtain their approval before sending to the journal. I interpret this responsibility as applying at three stages:
1. During drafting of a manuscript, until all authors approve the MS being submitted to the journal;
2. During peer review, when the lead author takes primary responsibility for addressing comments from peer review, with input from all authors, and gets approval from all authors for the version to re-submit to the journal (this stage repeated as necessary if there is more than one round of peer review); and
3. During copyediting, when the lead author shares the typeset and corrected final proof with all authors for their approval before submitting for processing and publication.
I think all three of these stages are important in order to ensure that the last round (approval before publication) is sufficiently met, so that all authors are in a position to take ethical responsibility for the work (#4).
(See my tips on how to work with revisions suggested by reviewers here.)
When working on revisions, and especially with large and diffuse author groups, the lead author has to herd the cats and balance between giving everyone opportunity for input, and making decisions about the most appropriate direction for the paper (especially when coauthors or reviewers may have contradictory suggestions). After giving all authors a chance for input, during revisions the lead author might send around a version that incorporates changes suggested and say something like,
“Thanks for all your comments, which have been incorporated in the attached version. I had to balance between suggestions X and Y, which I did by Z; I hope everyone is satisfied with this approach. I would like to submit on X date (eg 1 week in the future). Please reply with either (a) any critical changes needed for accuracy or (b) your approval to submit. Thanks!”
It's especially essential to receive positive affirmation (i.e., a verbal or written OK to submit) from each author for the final version to be published.
Last October, I gave a Sunday morning talk to a group of early-career researchers attending the Earth Systems Governance conference. It was a day-long program on "Developing a career in earth system governance: opening up science." I enjoyed the chance to gather my thoughts and pass along some good advice I've been given (and some earned through experience!).
Thanks very much to Ina Möller, who made a podcast from our conversation. You can have a listen here.
Here's a condensed list and links to resources I've found helpful. Hope they're useful to others!
Science should be open. Duh.
Easier said than done.
There are many reasons why this fails.
Personally, I think mostly it's well-intentioned, busy people who don't follow best practices from the beginning, then don't want to spend the time cleaning up their Rube Goldberg-esque Excel sheets later.
I've definitely been there. But I'm trying to get better, and trying to help those in my lab establish good habits.
For my last lab meeting, we discussed best practices in open data, based on this paper by my friend and colleague Lizzie Wolkovich.
Everyone in my lab is now working on curating our own data for a current project, including making a diagram of our workflow, and organizing our data cleanly, with good meta-data.
This is a work in progress, but here are a few resources I've found helpful:
1. Lizzie's paper, "Advances in global change research require open science by individual researchers," gives a great motivation for why open data matters, what stands in its way, and how to design research to be open.
2. Ten simple tips for how to design a clean spreadsheet, by @robinhouston and @SeanClarke (hint: commas, asterisks, and color-coding don't belong).
3. Thirteen more elaborate but still simple and important tips for effective data management (what you wish you knew at the beginning of your research career, instead of learning the hard way, like always using full, consistent format for dates).
4. Lizzie's "Ze Template" for organizing project meta-data (what the study is about, what files it involves, where they're located), under Creative Commons license. Yay open science, and yay Lizzie!
We're going to keep talking about this in my lab, including issues with open data in qualitative research (confidentiality, subjectivity of observations)- if you have any references on this, please let me know!
Here are some tips I compiled with my friend and colleague Josh Goldstein when we were both finishing our PhDs and tackling the job market. Good luck, job seekers!
Here are some of my top tips, and a suggested template of a letter to contact a potential advisor at the end:
I came across your work through X (conference/paper/my professor X’s recommendation). I am very interested in your approach to (topic) using (method/specific thing they do that interests you).
I’m writing to inquire if you are accepting PhD students in your lab for fall 2016?
I am aiming to pursue a PhD dissertation focusing on X topic, specifically looking at the question of X puzzle in X case for X purpose.
My background is in X bachelors from X university/Y masters from Y university. My research to date has focused on X, which I investigated most recently in my master’s thesis on X topic in X place, finding that X key highlight (please see attached thesis FYI). I have written about this work in a popular science blog here (link) and am currently preparing the manuscript for submission to the journal of X with my supervisor X.
I also have experience in X business/NGO/policy/government, where I accomplished X. For more details, please see my attached CV.
Regarding funding, I am currently applying for funding from X, X and X scholarship agencies to support the project I’ve outlined above. If there are any additional funding sources that you think might be a good fit to support this work, I would really appreciate any tips. And of course, if you have any currently funded projects that could support a PhD student, I would love to hear about them.
Thank you very much for your time and I look forward to hearing from you.
If you don’t hear back from them in 2 weeks, resend your message with a polite note at the top: “Dear Dr. X, I thought my earlier message may have caught you at a busy time. I’m still very keen to pursue a PhD in your lab, and hoping you can let me know if you are accepting new students next fall. Thank you, X”
If there’s someone you’re really excited about who hasn’t gotten back to you, consider picking up the phone to call them. Bold move, but it just might work! People get a bajillion emails, but few phone calls nowadays. Practice a shortened version of the text above to ask them.
It’s smart to apply to at least several schools (I just checked and I applied to seven PhD programs, which now seems excessive- but at least three is good). You don’t know where you’ll get in, and you’ll have to consider personal factors about where you want to live, so it’s good to have options.
Most advisors will be contacted by many students and will have many applicants for each open position in their lab. So, you both are on the lookout for the person who will be the best fit! Most advisors will understand this (some may even ask where else you are applying).
That said, if you apply for external fellowships, you may have to specify your top choice for where you want to go and who you want to work with (depending on the fellowship). In this case, it’s important to share your plans with your potential advisor and get their agreement to support your application. In any case, if you really click with a potential advisor, consider asking them to give you feedback on your external fellowship application (for something like NSF GRFP, not for their own university applications where they would have a conflict of interest). Hopefully their comments can help you strengthen your proposal.
In any case, good communication with a potential advisor is important, so ask them questions to clarify expectations or any points of confusion.
Hope this helps- let me know if you have any comments!
I find writing grant proposals to be one of the most challenging tasks in science. I might go so far as to say that it’s my least favorite part of my job (well, right up there with submitting travel receipts).
I take some comfort from the fact that I struggled with writing papers in grad school, but I now mostly enjoy paper writing once I’m actually sitting down to write them. I like posing a question and finding an (inevitably incomplete but sometimes intriguing) answer, and seeing the cool story that my data tell. I attribute this evolution to help from mentors and having put in the time and effort myself to gain the experience that makes the whole process more fun. But writing proposals for me is still agonizing, stressful, and slow. How do you write something compelling based not on data but on conjectures? It's a tricky business.
Of course, you need funding to carry out research, to ask and answer the questions you think are most interesting and important. So I'm working on gaining more experience in the hopes of improving my grantwriting skills (and, maybe someday, my enjoyment of the process). Here are some approaches, resources, and tips I've found helpful along the way.
Review others to learn a lot yourself
Perhaps the most helpful thing for me has been to start serving on proposal review committees. Much like becoming a reviewer for journal articles, it's so much easier to see shortcomings (and admire strengths) in other people's writing, and to start to develop from that my own understanding of what makes a proposal good. Reviewing proposals is a "service" task that's part of being a good academic community member, but I've personally benefitted a lot from it in learning about the grant review process and getting ideas for how to write better grants. Instead of agonizing over every word of your own proposal, it's extremely helpful to go through ten or 50 proposals at once and see what stands out for you in writing a clear, compelling proposal.
Most programs that give out funding need subject experts to review proposals. These include federal agencies like NSF, NASA, and EPA in the US, or national agencies like Formas and VR in Sweden, as well as coordinated programs like the European Commission's Horizon 2020 program. There are also many programs that need reviewers for graduate fellowships (like the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program, which solicited reviewers in August 2014- keep an eye out for next year), or student sections of scientific societies (like the American Geophysical Union) who give out awards and fellowships.
I would suggest that aspiring grantwriting pros seek out opportunities for reviewing proposals, including:
Tips from a Grantwriting Workshop
I recently attended a proposal-writing workshop for early-career scientists at Lund University held by Dan Csontos, a former Nature editor who is now running his own scientific writing consulting business called Elevate Scientific. This was a really helpful overview of suggested structures and strategies for proposal writing. You can see the Storify compilation of all the tips that I Tweeted from the workshop here.
One especially helpful suggestion from Dan was to start research proposals with just four sentences, articulating the background, statement of need, purpose or objective, and impact for your project. Starting here can really help you keep your focus and see the integration between sections in a proposal.
I've found that it's also critical to develop figures right from the start, and to refine and integrate these with the text as you go along. (Sometimes it's easier to start with a mind map or simple box-and-arrow diagram than with text.)
Here's my interpretation of Dan's four core sentences, illustrated with examples from a successful proposal that was generously shared by my colleague Nick Magliocca at SESYNC. (See how helpful it is to have good models? Thanks, Nick!)
1. Background- why is this topic important, relevant, timely? What is the current state of the field?
Example: “In an increasingly teleconnected world, rural populations are undergoing rapid changes in both their livelihoods and land uses, with associated impacts on ecosystems, global biogeochemistry, and climate change.”
2. Statement of need- what critical question/aspect remains unknown? Linking to and narrowing down from the general background question above.
Example: “Thus, a challenge in land systems science is to explain these shifts [or land-livelihood sustainability transitions (LLSTs)] in terms of the actors and processes operating within coupled human-environment systems, and produce actionable insights that can help navigate sustainability transitions in these systems.”
3. Purpose/objective- what specifically do you want to do in this proposed work? Use active verbs (discover, explain, develop, synthesize, characterize).
Example: “This project will develop a geo-information and simulation architecture to support synthesis of local knowledge within a global context and advance scientific understanding of land-livelihood sustainability transitions (LLSTs) around the world.”
4. Impact- Why would achieving your stated purpose be important? What academic, theoretical, and practical use would it serve? How would the world be a better place if you achieved your stated research purpose beyond your wildest expectations? (Please don’t say, “This work would have important policy/theoretical implications”- rather, state exactly what those might be.)
Example: “This project could link across several SESYNC research themes, and produce collaborative activities such as the development of a synthesis project and/or workshop on integrating meta-analysis and modeling for cross-site comparison and synthesis.”
Bonus tip! Dan also recommended the book "Scientific Writing and Communication: Papers, Proposals, and Presentations," by Angelika Hoffman, as a practical, accessible, one-stop shop for grantwriting. Sounds like a good investment.
Teaching Research Design
Another huge help in learning how to write proposals has been mentoring students and postdocs in their proposal writing. As any teacher knows, sometimes the greatest learning comes through teaching. Trying to explain how to structure a master's thesis proposal or a travel grant has really helped me articulate what works and what doesn't in explaining proposed research. It's also spurred me to come up with some resources for my students to try to help them structure their thoughts in writing research proposals. While these weren't designed to submit to funding agencies, I think having a clear research structure on paper (which clarifies the logic in your head as well) is still helpful in articulating the logic and making a compelling case for the research, and these could be used for grant proposals as well.
The first is a "dream abstract" template, to be personalized with fill-in-the-blanks for a specific case. The idea is to imagine the whole research project from the start, to have a clear idea of what you're trying to do (it takes surprising focus to actually answer the research question you intended). I've run a workshop with master's students where students starting their theses first spent about 20 minutes working on their own draft individually (they had also been given the template ahead of time, but most wanted to change it after listening to the presentation I gave). Then they worked in groups of four, spending about 20 minutes each reading it aloud to the group and getting feedback from their fellow students (which was really perceptive). The students who attended the workshop said they found this process helpful to jump-start their thinking. It could be a good way to get over the horrible "blank screen, blank mind" stage of starting something new.
The second is a research design matrix, to go through the process of operationalizing research topics into specific variables. (Recommended reading here: Chapters 3 & 4 of The Craft of Research, by Booth et al.). You can find this matrix on Slide #50 of the talk I presented at the Thesis Toolbox workshop, illustrated with the example of a master's thesis by LUMES alum Kyle Clark, which we worked together to turn into a published paper.
Finally, the most extensive document is a Research Proposal Template that I made for the master's students that I supervise. This is intended to help them develop their own 8-10 page research plans over the fall, so they're ready to conduct their research in the spring semester. The proposal starts with the dream abstract and contains sections for research context, questions, design, ethics and philosophy, as well as communication and implications.
I hope these tips are helpful to ease some of the pain of writing proposals- I'd love to hear your tips for suggested approaches and resources!