Be Published or Not, Reviewers Decide.
Be Cited or Not, Readers Decide.
Readers go to writers, not writers to readers. Having a paper in print means absolutely nothing, other than only one or two reviewers found some nugget of possibly new knowledge in what you submitted. If readers do not go to your paper, you have accomplished nothing. If people read your paper but remain unconvinced to use or at the very least to verify its findings, you have accomplished nothing. You will not be cited, a career-perishing prospect. Your two objectives are clear. First, you need to attract the reader to your paper. And then you need to convince both reviewer and reader of the worth of your scientific contribution to publication gate and the citation floodgate. The reviewer will give you several hours to evaluate your work; the reader will give you less than two seconds. You need convincing? Read on!
Reader needs are expressed through keywords they hope to find in the title of your paper; these keywords are typed in the single line of scientific search engines such as Google Scholar, the Web of Science (Thompson Reuters), and Science Direct (Elsevier); These search engines retrieve lists of titles containing these keywords. By the time your title appears on the screen as one item in a long list, the reader, anxious to find a relevant article, spends no more than two seconds on your title while scanning the page (mainly word spotting). So you have only two seconds to establish a strong clear connection to the reader's brain. If too much noise drowns the signal, if your title fails to meet the reader's needs within two seconds, the eyes will have gone past your title on their downward journey towards the bottom of the list, never to return. And if your title happens to be on page six in that long list of titles, you might as well have written nothing because rare are those who are patient enough to scroll down that far. So great scientific writing starts with understanding how to write a great title. This is your most important task and the most difficult one.
Building Writers from Readers
We are all readers before being writers. We read far more than we write. As scientists, we read far more than the average reader; and what we read is far more complicated. Is it possible to become a better writer by building on our reading skills? A priori, it does not seem possible. Reading is more of an experience. If the writing is clear, concise, interesting, fluid, and organised, we enjoy the experience of discovering the information relevant to our needs. If the experience is not pleasant, rarely do we blame the writer, and rarely do we search for the cause of this unpleasantness, blaming instead our short patience or our lack of knowledge; after all, If what we read is not clear to us, it must be because we fail to understand.The failure is ours, not the writer's. Twisted logic. If restaurant food is making you sick, what is needed: a better immune system or a better managed restaurant?
Readers have rights: the rights to clear, concise, interesting, fluid and organised writing. To defend our rights, we need to identify the causes leading to a poor reading experience, and determine with fairness where the responsibility lies, with the reader or with the writer. Most times, it lies with the writer. Therefore, understanding whatever makes us fail as readers is a great learning experience for the wanna be "reader friendly" writer. The purpose of the book and of this website is to help scientist writers understand how they create reading accidents where their readers mentally trip on acronyms, lose themselves in a labyrinth of disjointed ideas, get sucked into the quick sand of extra long sentences from which they will only be able to extract themselves after two of three successive readings. Such reading accidents are predictable, and they are sign-posted in the book "Scientific Writing, a reader and writer's guide". They are also discussed in some of the pages found in the bonus section.
Learning by example is great, as long as the examples are good and there are enough of them for us to detect patterns. Novice writers are often thrown into writing at the deep end of the writer's pool with recommendations such as "Take my paper as an example, and do the same". Unfortunately, good examples are rare, and not identified as good examples. Furthermore, good examples all started as bad examples. As Marc Raibert, former MIT Professor, once wrote, "Good writing is bad writing that was rewritten". And the usual submitted paper has rarely been rewritten enough times to qualify as a good example; pressure to meet the publication deadlines, lack of time for writing the paper, and other extremely good reasons militate against that.
Writers are unable to see what in their writing make readers stumble. They find what they write to be extremely clear. Indeed, they fail to understand why others do not find it clear. This is so because it is extremely difficult to move seamlessly from writer to reader without giving a face to the reader, a face different from one's own face. Writers occasionally transmute into readers by putting their writing aside for a week and returning to it with a fresh look. They then have to rely on the written archive to reconstruct their original thoughts - a lossy process. While converting thoughts into words, much gets lost in translation! Because the reader is the one who has to reconstruct the writer' s thoughts, writers need the help of their readers to identify what in their translation process failed to work smoothly. The Scientific Writing Skills Seminar provide a reader-centred perspective on writing. Once informed, it is so much easier to identify the stumbling blocks in your own writing. The purpose of this site and the book it promotes "Scientific Writing 2.0: a Reader and Writer's guide" is to help you identify these.
The written paper & its oral presentation
People who ignore the inherent differences between a written paper and its oral presentation do not perform well in front of an audience. Readers do not behave the way an audience does. The people may be the same, the title of the paper and of the talk may be the same, but everything else is different because the presenter is there, and the presenter is in charge.
When the author is not there, readers are in charge. They are mobile travellers choosing their own paths through the paper. They can put it down and return to it later. They can read parts of it repeatedly for better understanding. They can turn off the air-conditioning when it gets too cold, turn on the light when it gets too dark, and put on glasses if the text is too small.
The audience is immobile, and not free to choose any other path than the preset slide sequence. The audience cannot revisit past slides, not until the Q&A. The audience has no control over the environment apart from the decision of where to sit. The captive audience has lost most of its freedom, like plane passengers who can watch a movie or sleep through it. The only difference is that no one needs a parachute to leave the meeting room, and many, not just the privileged few, can sit next to the exit doors.
In an oral presentation, guess who is now in charge and in control: You, the author and presenter. Some see that responsibility as a curse. They would rather engage the audience one-on-one in a conversation instead of an unnatural fifteen-minute monologue followed by a brief dialogue. Some see this responsibility as a great opportunity to have a personal influence on their readers and, there and then, in the seclusion of the meeting room, achieve things that authors can only dream of.
The failure of an oral presentation is mainly the failure to interest the audience in what the presenter is doing, and in who the presenter is. This failure often comes because the presenter attempts to do more than simply interest people. The quantity of information delivered per second, and per square inch of screen is overwhelming. The presenter's unwillingness to take control over the contents means that the paper is taking control; It imposes its structure, and its compressed contents are funnelled through the slides. The presenter's unwillingness to take control over time means that time is taking control. And time is a tyrannical master. The presenter, pressed for time, hurriedly presents the slides. Had the expectations of the presenter been lowered to simply interest the audience, time and contents would no longer be so constraining.
The failure of an oral presentation is not only the failure to interest. It is also the failure to network. The presentation may have been fine, but the presenter did nothing to connect to the people in the audience who may have a determining influence on the rest of his or her life. It is as if Caesar's famous three-word sentence ended abruptly after the second word: "Veni, Vidi", but no "Vici". I came, I saw, but I did not conquer. I went back home without capitalising on that great opportunity of facing my peers, identifying those who have a keen and direct interest in my work, and collaborating with them or challenging them.