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Scientific Writing, working together, and what’s next for scholarly publishing

An interview with Charla Lambert and Stephen Matheson on their long-time partnership organizing and coaching at the annual Scientific Writing Retreat.

Since 2015 Charla Lambert, Diversity Equity & Inclusion Officer for CSHL, and Stephen Matheson, Associate Editorial Director at PLOS have collaborated to coach researchers to improve the clarity and effectiveness of their professional writing through their annual Scientific Writing Retreat. We caught up with them just before their 8th annual retreat, taking place this November at the Banbury Conference Center in Long Island.

The Scientific Writing Retreat has been a long term partnership (8 years now!). What changes have you observed in scientific writing norms and best practices in the time you’ve been running the retreat? Has your advice to writers changed at all? Any predictions on where science writing may be headed in the future?

Stephen Matheson photo
Stephen Matheson, PLOS

Stephen Matheson (SM): Preprinting has gone from a semi-controversial practice that was resisted by some publishers, to a practice that is still misunderstood and opposed by some subcommunities in science but is overall uncontroversial and broadly embraced. We used to discuss preprints as a separate topic in our session on publishing—we stopped doing that a couple years ago.

I think our advice to writers is… well, timeless. Two of our fundamental principles are that good scientific writing is just good writing; and that one must know oneself as a writer before trying to adopt particular practices or habits. Those things haven’t changed at all, though I think it will soon get harder to find oneself (as a writer) than it was before Bard and ChatGPT. GPTs will change scientific writing, and all writing, and we’ll start addressing that this year using materials developed by Charla in her teaching at CSHL.

Charla Lambert (CL): I think the rise of generative AI this year will be the biggest change, though its effects on scientific writing norms are TBD and playing out in real time. It will certainly affect people’s writing, editing, and creation processes in ways that we don’t yet foresee. It has the potential to be really beneficial for people who struggle with writing, people whose primary language isn’t English, people who don’t have access to or funds for professional editing services or training, etc.  But I agree with Stephen that it also has the potential to mask people’s individual style in writing and, as a scientific community we’d then lose out on a lot of distinct and engaging voices.

I’m curious how bringing together expertise from different organizations and different areas of scientific communications has helped shape the training that you’ve created. What are some of the benefits and/or challenges of collaboration? Has your work together impacted how you think about scientific writing and science communications broadly?

SM: There is no single good/best way to write. That’s one principle we emphasize from the beginning, so we are effectively obligated to provide students with diverse writing coaches who come from different areas of science and who have different (sometimes strikingly different) habits and practices in writing. We all enjoy our collaboration very much, which is good because the retreat would be ineffective without that diversity. 

There is no single good/best way to write.

The only challenge created by our collaboration is the fact that our course only happens once a year and is planned by a team that is dispersed among as many as four different institutions in three states. Charla and the CSHL courses team do the vast bulk of the preparation.

How has our collaboration changed how I think about scientific writing? 

1. Teaching and coaching in the retreat has led me to more strongly emphasize the (potential) importance of dramatic flair (e.g. “twists”, pause for effect) and similar tactics that seem at first to be inappropriate in scientific writing. It is all too common for the pursuit of precision and completeness to overshadow and doom the more important pursuit of clarity. 

2. We urge students to reflect on their strengths and especially on their weaknesses (“Identify your kryptonite”) and then work with both. This is great advice in any part of life and I actively include it in mine.

Charla Lambert photo
Charla Lambert, CSHL

CL: Stephen’s correct that we place an intentional emphasis on diversity when assembling the slate of coaches in a given year—diversity in backgrounds, experiences, positions, writing styles, and approaches to coaching writers. One of the amazing things that happens each year is a recognition among the “students” that there really are core principles they keep hearing from all the different coaches. Everything we suggest tends to stem from the audience for a given piece, the goals in writing to that audience, and clarity in the writing to achieve those goals. We don’t prescribe an abstract set of do’s and don’ts—there’s an explicit recognition that everyone’s writing process is different and what works well for one person won’t necessarily work for another—but everyone leaves the retreat with some tools for examining clarity in their own writing.

And yes, the big challenge to collaboratively running this retreat is getting to do it only once a year! There have been many jokes over the years about starting a consulting company, a train-the-trainer model, or even a podcast about writing (I’m still not sure who’d listen to that, haha). The curriculum and experience are definitely ongoing needs in science. I love running the retreat with Stephen and the great coaches and co-instructors we work with, but we all have limited bandwidth.

Do you find that trainees benefit from working together as part of the course? Are there benefits or challenges to workshopping with researchers from different disciplines and institutions?

SM: Small groups are a HUGE part of the retreat and are consistently rated very favorably by students. 

CL: Absolutely. Peer feedback groups are essential, and we spend time talking about how to give and receive feedback constructively so the time in small groups is effective. We intentionally create the groups so that, as much as possible, people are working on similar things (manuscripts, grants, fellowships, job applications, etc.) and are from very different subdisciplines. There’s a power to hearing from peers what you do well when writing, and there’s a power to hearing from peers in different subdisciplines what might be confusing in your writing. The small groups help develop empathy for and a sharp focus on the audience.

Peer feedback groups are essential, and we spend time talking about how to give and receive feedback constructively so the time in small groups is effective.

One anecdote I’ll share: One year, the work in small groups spun out into a full-class discussion on journal clubs and the climate in science. As coaches, we give both positive and constructive feedback, and we ask the students to give positive feedback in small groups before getting mired in more critical comments of someone else’s writing. This often takes a lot of practice because the students are typically used to seeing science function only on critical or “negative” feedback. At the end of the retreat, one of the students expressed surprise that they benefited from hearing positive feedback instead of just critical comments from their peers. Another student asked why journal clubs don’t typically prescribe both positive and constructive feedback—the class agreed that journal clubs often devolve into negative commentary, sometimes even ad hominem attacks. Finally, a third student who was an early-career faculty member realized they could run their journal clubs differently, and vowed to do so in the future. It was a really satisfying integration of all the different professional hats I wear!

Thank you both!

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