Misconceptions about writing a thesis Mike Gould of Communication Consultants Michael Gould Associates BV Eat & drink what you like • The Japanese eat very little fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than Brits or Americans. • However, the French eat a lot of fat and also suffer fewer heart attacks than the British or Americans. • The Japanese drink little red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than Brits or Americans. • The Italians drink lots of wine and also suffer fewer heart attacks than Brits or Americans. • Conclusion: Eat & drink what you like. It must be speaking English that kills you! Feedback page of The New Scientist (13 JuIy 2002) Starting a PhD thesis “This is typically a leap in the dark and it naturally leads to anxieties” (Creedy, 2008). In many western countries, supervisors expect a PhD student to produce a thesis as a compilation of (at least) three research articles on a specific problem or research topic Hartley (2000); Hartley & Betts (2009). Publish (and get cited) or perish You can evaluate a journal’s, a university’s (or your own) impact factor using: • Thomson Reuters’ Web of Knowledge • Elsevier’s SCOPUS • Google Scholar • Microsoft Academic Research Goals Writing effectively in science is about achieving goals. So, what are the author’s goals, what are the journal’s goals, and what are the reader’s goals? What are your goals? Real-world readers • Don’t have to read your article • Don’t have much time to read your article • Do not care how smart the author is • Are looking for nuggets: ideas/concepts they can use • Effective communication counts for much more than perfect grammar What are nuggets in science? • A nugget is something that has value • Credible science is relevant • Credible science meets a need • A nugget is easy to pick up • If we can find value in a scientific paper, we’ve found a nugget Acceptance criteria Articles are judged by Journal Editors and peer reviewers on: Relevance Credibility Readability Originality But relatively few articles are accepted… A crucial reader: the Journal Editor “I receive about 15 articles per day. Most of them I reject within 3 minutes. The main reason for rejection is that I can’t see the point of the research.” (Edwin Gale, Editor of Diabetologia; Acceptance rate: 20%) Tell me a story “A paper should have a beginning, middle and end. The beginning says why you did the study, the middle says what you did, and the end says what you found and why it matters.” (Edwin Gale, Editor of Diabetologia) Focus on the storyline 1. The problem to be solved 2. Research questions the answers to which will help solve the problem 3. Answers to those questions based on measurement and observation 4. The consequence of those answers: the value of the work 5. The next step in research / implementation Credible science 1. Your research question is at the heart of your work: everything you do relates directly to it 2. State it in terms of observable, measurable variables 3. Make sure that the question can in fact be answered 4. Make sure you answer it in your paper So what is scientific language? 1. It’s clear, precise and accurate. 2. The only difficult words? Scientific ones. 3. Any other words are exactly the same as those you'd use in everyday language. 4. These should be combined naturally (as in everyday language). 5. Theses are often unnecessarily complex. This undermines clarity, precision & accuracy (see 1). What makes good writing? “It’s clear as a bell. I couldn’t put it down. It just flows.” Why? Because no information arrives that can’t be handled the moment it arrives, everything points forward, and then goes in the direction it is pointing.” Adapted from George D. Gopen (Expectations) Is heavy jargon scientific? heavy, highly purified beef-heart mitochondria protein? The presence of glucose delayed daughter cell release in 80% of experiments …useful for long-term activities planning? Pseudo-scientific language ‘The question then is whether these patients show different sensorimotor strategies compared to healthy subjects.’ OR ‘The question then is whether these patients adopt different sensorimotor strategies compared to healthy subjects.’ Frontal overload Working with students is what attracts me most in this position. OR What attracts me most in this position is working with students. Abstract or concrete? Should you write: “The fish were observed to exhibit a 100% mortality response.” or simply: “All the fish died.”? What’s the subject of this sentence? • Original formulation However, there was no difference in their BMI, waist circumference, systolic and diastolic blood pressures, daily alcohol consumption and serum CRP levels compared with the population used for analysis. Make the topic the subject • Revision However, BMI, waist circumference, systolic and diastolic blood pressures, daily alcohol consumption and serum CRP levels were no different from those in the population used for analysis. Exercise in fore & backgrounding “… is a powerful analytical tool … requires a large dataset … gives extra precise results … SQL it … / and …” Use only ONE of: ‘although’, ‘but’, ‘however’ A negative angle on SQL “SQL is a powerful analytical tool that gives precise results. However, it requires a large dataset.” A positive angle “Although SQL requires a large dataset, it is a powerful analytical tool which gives extra precise results.” ‘and’ is a weak link Instead of: “The research revealed … and was published in Nature.” Write: “The research, which revealed …, was published in Nature.” Which factors get authors published? 1. Logical linking of sentences for readers 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. Coherent development of the topic Use of grammatically correct sentences Effective claims at the right level Clear organisation of sections of a paper Placing the work done in a wider context Ranking by 116 editors (adapted from Gosden, 1992: Figure 1) Readers need signposts for understanding sentences and paragraphs. First establish the context, on the basis of what they already know. Then move towards new facts. Beginning with exciting new information and ending with something we already know leaves us disappointed and spoils the flow of the article. The subject determines the flow Scientists often have to fund their research from limited budgets. They need…” OR “Funding for science often comes from limited budgets. This funding relies on…” Zooming in “Managers of research centers are under pressure to keep costs low. Those in the Netherlands are particularly keen to do so. Research coordinators at TU/e...” Pre-publication CHECKLIST Get help from your supervisor Write like you speak, then revise Find the right journal Do the work of the reviewers yourself Make a full info package (website, data, notes, article in the press, scientific poster) Four golden rules for PhD students1 1. Don’t be anxious about a lack of background knowledge (no one knows everything, and you don’t need to!). 2. Go for the messy (unsolved problems, mysteries)— that’s where the action is. 3. Forgive yourself for wasting time. Unsuccessful experiments and dead-ends are quite normal. 4. Learn something about the history of science. Take a broad-brush approach (e.g. read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything). 1Weinberg 2003 Ingredients for success (% = weighting) • A supervisor with the right advice at the right time … and you can sit in his/her office and talk whenever necessary (50%) • Top lab and IT equipment, including state-ofthe-art software (10%) • Access to digital and hard copy libraries (10%) • Specialized training in academic writing, research skills, statistical analysis and document preparation (25%) • Participation in international conferences (5%). The Graduate School stress curve by Edwin P. Gerber (from a talk on how to survive grad school). A useful strategy Set up a Writing Support Group with a few colleagues (or find a ‘Writing Buddy’ with a good publishing hit rate) to review your storylines for future projects, help you communicate with editors, and provide feedback on your work. 'Piled Higher and Deeper' by Jorge Cham is a popular comic strip about life in grad school. Check it out at www.phdcomics.com A couple of final thoughts Why are scientists so innovative in their research, but so conservative in their practice? Why are they so slow to adopt open access?