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Writing and Publishing: Mentos, Manatees, and Sinkholes

I’ve been reflecting on my own writing. Today, I picked up three bound booklets from my local copy shop. These are the ‘after’ picture of my PhD dissertation — the pdfs of the peer-reviewed papers that grew out of my ‘before’ dissertation chapters. The volume is sleeker than my official hardcover ProQuest dissertation copy, the figures are more refined, and the writing inside is much better.

I was so excited to share this news that I lost control of grammar and hit ‘send tweet’ with this: “Just picked up bound copies of my PhD’s final outputs for my and my mentors — the four peer-reviewed papers that came out of my dissertation chapters!” which I quickly followed with “**me and my mentors? Or myself and my mentors? I guess my typo split the difference?” My former labmate, Dr. Amanda Gallinat, shot back the brilliant response: “My mentos and their manatee*” My dissertation was fine — I graduated! — but I am so proud of these papers and I appreciate how much work my mentors (my mentos) put into the polishing the writer (me, their manatee) in the years before and after I graduated.


I am thinking in this framing — about my luck as a well-polished manatee — because I just read Stephen Heard’s blog post ‘Edit to polish the writing, or edit to polish the writer?’ Heard talks about the evolution of his feedback to early career writers, from full on track-changes to more restrained, but open-ended comments. He writes, “I now try to explain what writing problem I see and suggest fixes that the ECR might choose to pursue – that is, my intent is to edit to polish the writer, rather than to polish the writing.” Last year I had the honor of serving as an advisor for a senior capstone project, supervising a student while she wrote the equivalent of a senior thesis. Her final paper was outstanding. Over the summer, we began revising that paper for submission to a conservation journal. Looking back, I recognize the tension I felt between polishing my student and polishing our paper. At the time, I didn’t have the framework to explain this feeling — Heard captures it with beautiful simplicity — but I remember the effort of reigning in my copyediting instincts. This student and I spent a few days together in July when I visited the research station where she was working on a field crew. I was fresh off of sending in proofs for my last dissertation chapter manuscript, and it seemed very important to step out of the mindset where I was the manatee, and shift into the role of being her mento on this paper. The adjustment was both imperceptible and enormous.*


My sleek, beautifully bound booklet of dissertation papers is less homogenous than my original dissertation. Without an introduction and conclusion, it’s still fairly cohesive — the first three papers are centered on Acadia National Park and clearly riff on each other’s datasets. But, there is a visible shift from paper to paper. The American Journal of Botany has columns, Rhodora does not; Ecosphere has a smaller font size than Northeastern Naturalist. When I place my booklet next to my dissertation, the inconsistencies in formatting are striking. Intriguingly, PLoS ONE just published ‘Scientific sinkhole: The pernicious price of formatting,’ a paper that quantifies the cost associated with formatting research papers for publication in peer-reviewed journals. Dr. Allana LeBlanc and her coauthors surveyed research scientists on the time they invested in their manuscripts outside of analysis, writing, and editing — in other words, how long did they spend formatting the body of the manuscript, figures, tables, supplementary files, and references? LeBlanc concludes, “our results suggest that each manuscript costs 14 hours, or US$477 to format for publication in a peer reviewed journal. This represented a loss of 52 hours or a cost of US$1908 per person-year.” While I agree that re-formatting a manuscript for a new journal is a pain (the researchers in LeBlanc’s survey reported that their manuscripts required a median of two attempts per accepted paper), I’m not sure that all 52 hours are a ‘sinkhole.’ The first 14 hours — the original formatting — won’t completely disappear even if journals adopt more open formatting standards. Maybe there will be less stress associated with meeting the approved journal abbreviations in your literature cited section or table dimensions, but you will still need to generate a literature cited section and you will still need to create the table. I’m not arguing that we keep arcane formatting rules — how is there not yet a common app of manuscript submissions?! — just that we acknowledge the non-writing hours that will always be required in manuscript preparation. Especially since, as we become the mentos, it’s likely our manatees will be the ones engaged in the frustrating work of formatting the manuscripts we helped them to polish.


And finally, I wanted to mention some lovely science writing advice for all the mentos and their manatees. In the Nature Career Column last week Van Savage and Pamela Yeh compiled the generous advice that they have received from a Pulitzer-prize winning writer. ‘Novelist Cormac McCarthy’s tips on how to write a great science paper,’ is a powerhouse advice paper. I especially love: “Dashes should emphasize the clauses you consider most important — without using bold or italics — and not only for defining terms. (Parentheses can present clauses more quietly and gently than commas.) Don’t lean on semicolons as a crutch to join loosely linked ideas. This only encourages bad writing.” I’m a big fan of dashes — I love them more than I love absurd manatee riffs — and I’m working on my semicolon crutches.


McCarthy’s last tip is to “try to write the best version of your paper: the one that you like.” I look at my booklet of PhD papers and I like these papers. The heart-swelling pride that I feel holding them all at once is part spite — I published new research about the impacts of climate change in a national park during the Trump Administration** — but also a recognition of personal and professional growth. These papers are the best version of my dissertation chapters. My mentos and their manatee did that — we took a decent dissertation and produced four really great peer-reviewed papers. It feels good.


*This code-switching between mentos and manatees could be, I think, one of Meghan Duffy’s less obvious signs of reaching a new career stage. My whole post-doc has been this mash up of mentoring and being mentored that seems to shift from day to day. Britney Spears can relate.

**I explored the angst and intensity around publishing climate change research in 2018 last year. Writing about Castillo Vardaro’s research on pikas in the Rocky Mountains, I said “we both finished our dissertation field work in National Parks before the 2016 election. Her work could inform whether pikas are listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act; my research supported a climate change vulnerability assessment; and after our halcyon days as PhD students under the Obama administration, we are now watching an administration and Secretary of the Interior generally disregard the National Park Service expertise on these issues. I told Castillo Vardaro that I feel an extra sense of urgency in publishing my Acadia papers now — especially in open access venues. I wondered if this was a personal quirk or if she felt a similar sense of responsibility for her field sites and study species.”


Novelist Cormac McCarthy’s tips on how to write a great science paper. Nature Career Column.

LeBlanc AG, Barnes JD, Saunders TJ, Tremblay MS, Chaput J-P (2019) Scientific sinkhole: The pernicious price of formatting. PLoS ONE 14(9): e0223116.


Banner Image: Victoria Pickering, creative commons



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