ISSN 1866-8836
Клеточная терапия и трансплантация

Scientific writing navigation: jump in and take a few hits

Robert M. Frederickson

Editor Molecular Therapy,

Robert M. Frederickson, PhD, Molecular Therapy Editorial Office, 214 Summit Avenue East, Suite 302, Seattle, WA 98102, USA
Phone: +1 206 724 7760, E-mail:
doi 10.3205/ctt-2010-en-000054.01
Submitted 12 February 2010
Accepted 12 February 2010
Published 19 March 2010

I read with much interest the article by Nevorotin providing advice to researchers from the states comprising the territories of the former Soviet Union who wish to have their work published in Western-based English language journals. I have served as a professional editor of journals focused on biomedical research for roughly 15 years now, first at Nature magazine and then at its sister journals, Nature Medicine and Nature Biotechnology. For the last eight years, I have served as the Editor of Molecular Therapy, which is the official journal of the American Society of Gene and Cell Therapy, and is published by Nature Group. During this time, I must admit that few submissions from this region passed over my desk. However, in my experience Nature Group and certainly Molecular Therapy have striven to be receptive to contributions of research articles from these regions and others in Asia, whose economies and research output are increasing rapidly in import.

Most editors realize the extra challenges faced by authors whose native language is not English. This issue is not limited to contributions from research labs physically located in the regions noted, but can also affect work submitted by post-docs hailing from these regions, but who now work in the West, particularly if the senior author does not proofread his or her penmanship. In my view, it is crucial that such authors pass their article to a biomedical researcher whose native language is English, but who is not directly involved in the work – or even in the specific subfield being written up. Why? Because a researcher more removed from the project can usually provide a better gage of the accessibility of its write-up for a general audience, assuming that the work is to be submitted to a high impact generalist journal, as opposed to a more subspecialty journal where the readers (and editors) are already likely familiar with much of the background and jargon of the particular field.

Indeed, it is this latter point that many authors – both native and non-native speakers of English – fail to appreciate. With the burgeoning volume of research articles, many editors find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer number of manuscripts they must screen. This initial editorial screen aims to determine whether the work merits external review or whether it should be returned to the author for submission elsewhere. This actually can be true both for professional editors at higher impact journals – who are no longer actively involved in bench or clinical science – and editors at society journals, who generally head up active research groups. Competition at high-impact journals is fierce. Acceptance rates can be as low at 10%. As such, the Editor must strive to select from myriad manuscripts landing on his or her desk those that fulfill the criteria of a potentially high-impact contribution. These criteria of course include novelty and scientific rigor and excellence, but must also include another important factor. The question an editor must try to answer is whether the work would be of interest to a broad spectrum of the readership; in other words, does the impact and general interest of the new findings extend beyond the narrow confines of the specific subfield of the research. This latter criteria is hard to gage, and is of course quite subjective. It is for this precise reason that the onus is on the author to emphasize in the clearest possible terms for both readers and most importantly the editor why the work is of general scientific interest and import. And remember, the editor is not reading this work in isolation, but rather from a pile of competing works that he or she is trying to whittle down within a limited period of time.

It is at this point that I cannot help but remember the reaction of my Ph.D. supervisor, McGill University researcher Nahum Sonenberg, to the first draft of my first manuscript authored under his guidance: “Keep it simple. People have too much to read already.” It is only over time I have realized how profound this seemingly simplistic advice actually was. For if you cannot explain very clearly and simply in few words the significance of your work, perhaps the work is in fact not that significant! Certainly, if you want to grab the attention of an editor or of those beyond your field, keeping the text and logical flow short, concise and simple can facilitate the appreciation of the work and its merits. I have always been somewhat obsessive-compulsive as I imagine are many who have gravitated to a scientific career – one gets focused on a specific problem, we want to understand it, and this can sometimes blind us to the greater context. In writing up our work, we aim to be precise and comprehensive, but this can often work against us, as we can lose many readers who may lack the same obsession and interest in our work!

Of course, most researchers based physically in the former East Bloc or Asia may not have easy access to a colleague willing to devote the time required to help with the write up of a research paper. In such cases, it may be useful to recruit the help of a professional scientific editing service. Such groups have been assisting researchers in Japan and other Asian countries for the past couple of decades. The services can range from simple correction of grammar, spelling and style to feedback on more substantive and developmental aspects of the write-up, and these can usually be negotiated directly with the service provider. I have worked with Nai, Inc., based in Yokohama since 2001, but there are a host of such services and NPG has recently got into the game with its own language editing service. I would be happy to steer any readers in the right direction in this regard.

Now, all the above notwithstanding, editors differ in their approach and style. This is why the most important thing an author can do is to engage the editor directly. This can be by discussing your work with an editor while at a conference or symposium or by simply emailing or calling the editor up. Send her or him an abstract to detemine whether the work fits the purview of the journal or would be of interest to the readership. Developing a relationship with the editor is probably the best thing an author can do to gain insight into the editorial process and standards at each particular journal and to get important feedback on one’s work and style of presentation. One thing that I have noted over the years is the variety of approaches and personalities amongst the incredibly idiosyncratic world of biomedical researchers. I have always been impressed by those who refuse to give up in the face of rejection and who persist in their dialogue with the editor, and who actively solicit feedback. A far more constructive approach than a terse email, verbal slight, or complete silence, none of which are likely to get an author anywhere!

The bottom line is that researchers from non-English speaking regions of the world face the same challenges as native speakers of a very competitive publishing environment, but with the added twist of having to learn the particular style and approach common to Western journals. The only way to learn to navigate through this environment is to simply jump in and take a few hits, for it really is only through experience and trial and error that an author can learn what works for him or her.

Volume 1, Number 4

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doi 10.3205/ctt-2010-en-000054.01
Submitted 12 February 2010
Accepted 12 February 2010
Published 19 March 2010

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