How a scientific edit might be like a Cubist painting

October 29, 2015

Dr. Nigro, Filipodia Editor


Picasso masterfully rearranged the human body in his paintings to reveal something we would not otherwise know about his subject. The finished painting vaguely resembles the model(s), but he skillfully enlightens us about her or their relationship…or about himself in an unexpected way.

I can’t help but think of a Cubist painting when I am finished editing a scientific manuscript. It is rearranged, red all over, and perhaps even a little disturbing to look at…sort of, well, like a Picasso.

There is an increasing demand for scientific editing in part because of the Internet. Information can come to anyone with a computer or phone anywhere on the planet. So it has become an advantage for scientists or physicians worldwide to have their manuscripts published in English, as the language is becoming more universally spoken.

Although the majority of my editing is for non-native English speaking scientists and physicians, it is more than a technical exercise focusing on grammar, vocabulary, and formatting. It is also a kind of story writing because results as any other facts are easier to remember when they are part of a narrative.

As a scientific editor, my most important ability then is to see the story. I imagine that conceiving a work of art takes place similarly for an accomplished artist or author. Once you see the story, you can paint or write with some sense of purpose.

The place where I like to start when I edit a paper is to answer one simple question: why did the authors perform these experiments? It seems obvious to start with this question, but it isn’t always easy for investigators to answer it. If the driving motivation is clear to me, each experiment can then be discussed as a series of events leading up to the conclusions rather than merely as a list lifted from a notebook. You can perform molecular profiling and report it, or you can integrate datasets in order to answer a specific question.

A misconception though is that writing the paper begins only after experiments have been completed. One of the secrets is that scientists who write well often know how they will put the story together before the work has even started. They ask the kind of question that has an interesting answer no matter what it is. While it is not always clear how they will get there or what the results will be, they visualize an endpoint (sounds like something you would hear at a yoga retreat, but it’s true!).

So scientific editing is more complicated than not having English as your mother tongue. Establishing a storyline requires interpreting the data and sometimes researching topics that I know little about (any human disease, molecular mechanisms, and even disorders of pets!). I also question potential inconsistencies so that authors may clarify them before submission. And maybe most importantly, my style of editing is also meant to be a teaching tool.

It is the non-native English speaking scientists asking for help because of the English, but the reality is that most of us could probably benefit from some form of scientific editing.