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Collaboration in Scientific Writing: One Researcher's Thoughts

The best science is performed by collaboration of researchers with different expertise. Although asking a collaborator for help with a specific technique is encouraged, asking for help with writing can be frowned upon. Since writing is one of the most tedious aspects of the scientific process, I hope the stigma against asking for help with it can change.

In my first biology class as an undergraduate, my professor revealed the secret of research, which was a pretty high bar to start the class on. He told us that science is a collaborative effort and that Hollywood was lying to us: there are no lone mad scientists! My dream of becoming a future Dr. Frankenstein or Herbert West, laboring away in a secluded lab, was dashed.

It wasn’t until I became a research scientist that I realized how correct my professor was: scientific research is a collaborative effort.

People talking at a table

In the same way the old adage posits “It takes a village to raise a child,” it takes a village to create good science. The average number of authors per cited articles by MEDLINE and PubMed has increased from 1.5 in 1950 to 5.5 per publication in 2015.

The increase in authorship is a direct result of the complexity in which scientific endeavors are taken. In the past, descriptive studies were common, in which only 1 or 2 authors with scientific expertise in their particular area were needed to develop and execute experiments, analyze data, and write the article.

At present, researchers may need experts from a variety of cross-disciplinary areas with different technical expertise to produce a well-rounded, in-depth study. It’s well understood in research that no one single scientist needs to know everything and creating collaborations is accepted and encouraged.

Does collaboration work for all parts of research?

The rule, as I see it: If you lack knowledge in a certain area or need access to a technique you’re not familiar with, you find someone that can help you.

Unfortunately, there is an exception to this rule: In order to succeed as a scientist, you need to be able to communicate your data to others in well-written papers. “Publish or perish” is the maxim of academia, requiring us as researchers to add those extra author lines to our CV.

When a scientist is a poor writer, they have very little chance of exceling as a primary investigator. Taken at face value, this may make sense to some readers: if you are not able to communicate your findings, then how will we know all the great things you’ve accomplished? However, if we think about how science is a collaborative effort, as we did before, why can’t a scientist who is not particularly skilled at writing just get help with that task? This collaboration is no different than a microbiologist seeking the help of an immunologist when trying to decipher how bacteria affect the immune system.

Additionally, the hardest aspect of being a scientist (for most of us) is receiving funding, and to increase your chances of receiving funding, you must produce a well-written grant proposal on top of your publication record. This compounds the disadvantage for scientists that struggle with written expression.

Possible solutions for researchers who struggle with writing

Ideally, scientific departments would be able to hire a scientific writer or editor to help researchers outline, write, and proofread their work. This person would help streamline the publication process and free scientists’ time to work experiments instead of sitting at their computer. Unfortunately, most departments could not afford to hire a full-time scientific editor/writer.

The next best thing is to find collaborators that are better than average writers and ask for their help. If that is not an option, then seek out companies that can help you communicate and disseminate your precious data to the masses. Companies with a primary focus on helping researchers write articles have experts across a variety of specialties that can help streamline the publication process.

I hope that writing can eventually just be viewed as another technique that is part of the scientific process. When someone needs help with it, they shouldn’t be embarrassed; they should ask for help. Remember, it takes a village to make good science happen!

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