One of the things about learning a new language that I have experienced while living and traveling around the world is that no one gets good at it unless you use it. The same argument could be made for writing manuscripts and making presentations. I have been editing articles for native as well as non-native English speaking scientists for a couple of years now, and I consistently find specific weaknesses in the articles that I receive. So here are some tips for ways that you can facilitate the editing process and more importantly learn from it.
Writing a manuscript deserves the same mentorship and attention as performing the experiments.
We focus on generating ideas and results in our training programs, but not so much on how to write about them. Writing is one of those skills we think of as belonging to the art side of our brains-some people do it extraordinarily well, while the rest of us struggle with it. I would argue we can all learn how to do it well enough, but that takes our active participation in the development of manuscripts whether from trainees or colleagues. It does not matter that the English is not perfect, simply that the connection between the experiments presented is obvious. I keep saying it, but ask yourself, “Why did I do these experiments?” If the purpose is clear, it’s easier for the editor to help you with your article.
The abstract needs data.
Often one of the weakest sections in manuscripts that I see is the abstract. Ironically, the abstract is what is read first by everyone involved in the publication process. Furthermore, once your article is published, the abstract is the one section that will be available worldwide through the Internet. Most often authors use general statements to describe their results rather than the numbers. “Expression was higher for X gene in tumors than in normal tissue.” How much higher? In how many samples? What is the P-value? The abstract should report the most important results from your study in a few sentences, and you need numbers to help you do this.
The Results section needs numbers.
One of the least informative sentences on its own is “Data is shown in Figure X.” This sentence leaves it up to the reader to analyze and interpret the data which is more work than they might want to do. Use numbers in the text. Even including the number of events (how many patients or tumors for example) helps immensely to give validity to your analysis. Interpret the result so that the editor does not have to.
The figure legends need descriptions of the figures!
I know, it seems obvious, but we all have a tendency to make conclusions in the figure legends rather than tell readers what they are looking at. The edit goes much easier if you as the author provide the details of what is in the images before the first edit. Are they Western blots, quantitative real-time PCR, or immunohistochemistry? The only conclusion should be made in the title to the figure.
Answer each of the editor’s questions.
I always have questions as an editor. Consider questions from the editor as a positive sign. It means the editor is thoroughly reading your article. Having an outside reader peripherally familiar with your subject matter is a terrific benefit. They help to fill in assumptions we make about general knowledge of our field, and thus enable a broader spectrum of readers to grasp the significance of our methods and results. So treat the questions as a learning opportunity and answer them as best as you can. Sometimes it takes a couple of tries, but in the end it is worth the effort before you submit your article.
Include all relevant material in English.
I have received papers missing figures or with data in tables or figures in another language. A more minor problem that takes up an editor’s time is lack of company information for materials used. Such problems are easy to rectify, but they can delay both editing and review processes unnecessarily. Reviewers find these kinds of oversights particularly irritating for the simple reason that it seems as if you do not pay attention to details.
The first edit is a first edit.
Usually a first edit is completed by a professional editor within a week. It is a very short time frame to thoroughly edit a manuscript (on a complex topic no less), especially ones that need considerable work. Each change in the edit must be carefully reviewed by the authors, so that the significance of results is conveyed the way the authors meant it. Many small errors (grammar or punctuation) emerge once changes are accepted in Word, and these too must be corrected. It is also not wise to amend your article once the editing process has been completed, even if it is only addresses or acknowledgements. Believe me, reviewers and editors find all of the mistakes! Most papers thus need to undergo at least one additional round of editing, if not more.
Choose the right journal for your article.
A great edit will facilitate the review process, but the novelty and impact of your results ultimately dictate where you can publish. There is no reason not to aim high, but each rejection means more cycles of formatting and submitting your article. Often rebuttal letters or appeals do not help and simply delay potential publication in another journal. All journals today are read internationally because of the Internet, and impact factor in my opinion begins to be of less importance as a paper can be read by anyone anywhere. A well-written article can appear online in any peer-reviewed journal recognized by PubMed and still be received favorably.
The unfortunate part about publishing manuscripts is that our training programs and jobs give what could be considered artificial importance to numbers. We need so many papers before we can graduate or to keep our positions as professors or academic physicians. In order to do great work, to really learn how to do science, we have to be willing to put in the time and patience to reach our real goals. Excluding experiments, all papers in my opinion take equal effort and time in terms of preparation and publication, perhaps more if English is your second language. You might as well invest in a logical series of experiments that you feel passionate about right from the beginning.