January 19, 2017
Clement Weinberger, PhD, Filipodia Editor
You may be writing a manuscript today. In fact, if you spend many hours at the bench doing research, then you probably are–writing, that is. One of my friends wakes up early every morning so that he can review the work that is going on in the lab and the status of ongoing-publication manuscripts. He meets later with his colleagues and coauthors.
If you look quickly, it just appears that research gets results that prove or disprove a hypothesis and can then be quickly interpreted and published. It’s more complicated. Good, readable, interesting, quickly published and often-cited articles begin long before the writing. They start with “a good idea at the time,” which then becomes “your problem” – an idea that you take ownership of. The key next steps are to transform your problem into a question, making it a testable hypothesis and developing a research plan to answer that question. In practical terms, that means writing a research protocol or outline with a working title for your investigation. At this point the title may be long and even vague because you probably do not yet have a clear view of your problem (and answer). That’s one reason why many journals restrict the length of article titles. It makes you consider about what you and the “et al.” in the author list were thinking of a bit more. The protocol needs to have a written rationale for doing the work (eventually the article’s introduction), a study design with a statistical plan, planned methods and materials, and the expected results. Then, as they used to say, “just do it”.
Of course, research events often do not go according to plan. When that happens, write an addendum to your protocol describing the changes you made and the reasons you made them. There are multiple reasons for all this. The least of which is to make it easier to explain in your (future) article and/or to a potential peer reviewer why you did things just the way that you did them. It is also important for validity that the primary calculation of study results be planned out and not ad hoc. Finally, you are probably not the only author. The protocol ensures that all potential authors are “on the same page” with what is planned and expected.
In general terms, there are three processes involved in publication planning. Information flow? It’s the different ways that you communicate your idea to increasingly more broadly focused audiences as it moves from a good idea at the time, to a question, to a protocol, to study notes and summary results, and finally to the published article. Knowledge management? It’s mainly about finding, organizing and navigating relevant data – mostly in the peer reviewed publications that form your reference list – and building a context that your experimental results are consistent with. The aim is to identify data within your research and that of others that support your hypothesis, the design of your investigation, the introduction, the results, and the discussion of your article. Project management? It’s concerned with making sure that the protocol is written, the study is completed (as close to schedule as possible), the results are analyzed and compiled into a summary report or notebooks, tables, and narratives that can be “translated” into a publication manuscript. It’s not over until the publication manuscript is written and the article is published – but then, the next chapter needs to be started. Keep it all in context.