Great Science : It’s All About the Story

During a recent meeting I had the pleasure of talking with Iain Patten, a professional science writer in Europe. Iain travels throughout Europe teaching scientists how to write high impact papers. We were very like minded about the scientific process. I wanted to share some of information from our discussion here.
Great, high impact science papers tell an important new story with broad implications. The story involves effort and planning from day one. Before you start experiments, read and ask big questions.
  • What are the potential stories that could be told depending on the answers to your questions?
  • What would be new and exciting about those answers and where could they lead experimentally?
  • What are the different ways of telling the story? Which ones are likely to be exciting and which are not exciting?

You should have a clear idea of the potential stories when you start your project. Planning, drafting and making figures with real data and imagined data must be a weekly activity. DO NOT gather data mindlessly and then try to write a paper with everything in year 5….most people do this to some degree.

  • Make pretend figures of the result(s) that would fit with your storyline and see what they might look like if they were really convincing. This way you won’t forget controls, you will have a clearer sense of the statistics you will use, and you will think through the potential outcomes.
  • Constantly draft ‘pretend’ figures of results describing alternative outcomes and think about where they might take you. This way you know where you could be headed and you will be prepared. This will help elevate the pressure to make the experimental result fit your hypothesis.
  • Constantly reevaluating your story will reduce wasted effort/experiments, help you maintain focus and set goals, and prevent you from overlooking holes in your story or failing to complete experiments.
  • Remember that the story does not have to fit the chronological order of the experiments. Rearrange the work to tell the story.
  • Plan, draft, make figures, see the best experiments and storylines, do the experiments…repeat

High impact scientists are journalists that gather evidence and assemble it into a compelling story that changes how people think. You must work on your story constantly. It will light the path in front of you and the paper will be written as you go.

  • When putting the final paper together, all that matters is the data that tells the most compelling, clear and well-supported story. You must be prepared to leave things out and do more work that further supports the best story. This stuff happens near the end and it is the toughest to accept when you are close to finishing.
  • Your conclusions must be supported by the data. Overstatement is the kiss of death from editors.
  • As provided to me by an editor from Nature Medicine, a great story often has the following components:
    • Novel, surprising, entertaining and broad implications/impact
    • Strong mechanistic insights
    • In vivo relevance
    • Functional manipulations
    • Necessity and sufficiency
    • Elegance
  • Be clear about the core message of the paper. If you can’t state the core message in 10 words or less then you haven’t found the core message.
    • Each subheading and associated section of the paper builds logically toward the core message
    • Paragraphs of each section have one message per paragraph and a logical transition from one paragraph into the next. All working to support the core message of the section.
    • Plan – draft – plan – draft…and repeat to get an elegant and clear message and structure for the story.
  • Beware of stories that just connect existing dots – the impact and advance tends to be small.

Think carefully about the journal that fits your story best. A preliminary inquiry can save time. You must clearly (and without exaggeration) explain how your article fits with the journal’s scope and what the core message is and why it is novel and important.

  • The best reviewers are often experts outside of your field. They can judge the technical aspects of the work and assess the impact without the internal biases of the field.
  • Editors recommend looking at the journal editorial board for good reviewers to suggest. These people have a reputation for solid, fair reviews. Exclude competitors.

Finally, what are you reading for? It is good to be an expert, but what you are really looking for is the following:

  • New and exciting plot lines for your story.
  • Gems of information that help you support and tell your story.
  • New and exciting plot lines for future stories (untold stories in waiting).
  • New and elegant techniques and approaches that will help you tell a better story.
  • Literature that will confound your story and contradict your interpretations/results.
  • Evidence that your story is novel and high impact.
Good luck!!! Have lots of ideas and chisel out the best stuff.

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