Academic life

Publishing my first paper

Student typing on a laptop

On Tuesday 30th June 2020, I woke up and did exactly what I try not to everyday: looked straight at my phone. Peering through bleary eyes, I spotted an email that started, “Dear Author”. “Author”, I thought, “I like the sound of that.

“Dear Author,
We are pleased to let you know that your article has been published [1].”

A sentence I had been waiting to read for three years, and here it was, sitting in my mailbox at 06:00. But getting here wasn’t as easy as waking up one day to good news. The journey from idea to publication was long and complicated. In this post, I’ll break my journey down into five milestones and five pieces of advice I wish I could go back and tell myself.

1. Find a niche

Diagramatic figure, demonstrating the two seed types produced by Aethionema arabicum, and the Anatonlian mountain habitat in which it lives.

Although I started working on this paper in November 2018, I think it’s important to start right at the beginning; when I was thinking of a project for my Master’s degree in 2017. I am on a Doctoral Training Program, meaning I had a PhD to go straight onto on completion of my Master’s, so I wanted to do something that would be beneficial to my PhD.

My Supervisor recommended I do something to describe the behaviour of a plant being researched at his University, Aethionema arabicum. Ae. arabicum is a small annual brassica that lives in the Anatolian Mountains and has two seed types. It had just been discovered that the ratio of these two seed types changes at different temperatures [2].

For my Master’s project, I tried my best to model and describe the evolution of this behaviour, but ultimately the model didn’t work. I spent the first year of my PhD trying to work out why it didn’t, and that’s when I encountered a potential solution.

I’d been looking at this plant as if it was a desert annual, but it wasn’t. It was an alpine species, colonising a vast number of environments. Models written to describe dispersal had mostly relied on bet-hedging theory, which is appropriate for dessert species, but not more complex, multi-habitat environments.

2. Get to the point

An hourglass

By November 2018, I had the model working and producing some really promising results, so I came up with an idea for a paper. The first few drafts were convoluted and filled with unnecessary information, and this is where I learnt my first lesson: less is more. My Supervisor kept returning my draft with the same note: “what’s the story?”

It took me until about draft seventeen before I finally understood what that meant. I had been desperate to include everything I’d learnt since my faulty Master’s model, but a lot of it was just “unnecessary” waffle (I happened to think it was very interesting): summaries of previous models and winding explanations of theories.

It was my independent adviser who gave me some of the best advice with how to outline my manuscript. Imagine your paper is an hourglass. Start with a general overview. With every passing paragraph, be more and more specific until you lead your reader to a question. The question.

Keep them there as you guide them through the methods and results, and for the opening of your discussion. Then, start to open the story back up again until you research the conclusion, which should mirror the opening sentiment and tie in with the title. This structure ultimately proved really successful with the reviewers, who both made a point to compliment the readability of the paper.

3. Shoot for the moon

The moon among the stars

Something to bear in mind when you’re writing a paper, is who you’re writing the paper for. I decided very early on that I would be writing for an ecologist. My writing style reflected that, and focused on questions surrounding my project that would be of interest to an ecologist.

When it came to submitting, this was also hugely important. Because I wanted ecologists to read it, I knew I had to have it accepted by an ecology journal. I made a list of journals I knew, and ones papers I’d cited had been published by. I then sorted them by preference and started with the big guns: Nature Ecology.

Altering the manuscript to their specifications was fiddly, and I wish I had written it with this in mind to start with, because in altering it, I had to lose a lot of the introduction. I then had to write a cover letter. Pitching my paper to someone else was tricky, but I knew I wanted to keep it concise and clear. Here’s what my paper shows, and here’s why it matters.

I submitted my manuscript in November 2019, a full year after starting writing it. Within a few weeks, I had a reply. Being rejected without going to review is a rough feeling. All that hard work, dismissed, without so much as a quick flick through. But I know they’re inundated with material for publication. So I picked my head up and tried again.

4. Try and try again

Chalk written on the pavement, reading "Keep going Mama!"

The next journal I decided to submit to was Ecology Letters. Their specifications were much more lenient, so I didn’t have to change too much. However, I did learn the importance of using a bibliography manager. It seems every journal has a different referencing style and changing between them manually is unnecessarily time-consuming. Do yourself a favour and start using something like Mendeley from day one!

With the manuscript slightly altered and the cover letter amped up to really drive home our message, I submitted once again. By January 2020, I had a response. Initially, I misread it and sent out a doleful email to my co-authors stating we’d been rejected a second time.

On second reading, I realised we’d been invited to resubmit following some major changes. Some journals will reject with an invitation to resubmit, something I didn’t know. Luckily, I had no dreaded “reviewer two”. Both of the reviewers assigned to my manuscript were hugely constructive.

Following their advice, I redrafted the manuscript, prepared a point-by-point response to their recommendations and resubmitted. They gave me a window of three months to do this, and by March 2020 I had a manuscript I was really confident in. But of course, nothing worth having ever comes easy.

5. Reach the peak

Climbing a mountain

At the end of April, I had an email from a now familiar address in my inbox. “We anticipate that your paper can prove acceptable for publication after further modifications.” Unsure of what this meant, but determined not to freak out my co-authors again, I forwarded on the email. Basically, it wasn’t a “yes” but equally, it was no longer a straight “no.”

In my head, I imagined after the first round of modifications, my manuscript would be ready to go, but of course this wasn’t the case. Like with mountain climbing, every time you think you’ve reached the peak, there always seems to be another couple of foot to go.

This time, I was given a turnaround time of two weeks. At this point I felt really fortunate to only be dealing with two co-authors. I have no idea how you would get a consensus of many people within two weeks.

Armed with another point-by-point breakdown of my changes, I submitted for the final time. Within a week, I had a yes. “Your manuscript is now accepted for publication” – words I reread sometimes, just to remember the sheer joy I felt after three long years of drafts, redrafts, rejections and alterations.

The front cover of my publication

Writing and publishing a paper was a dramatic learning curve. So, what did I learn? It’s not enough to have a good idea. Without a decent story line, no one will take the time to read and understand its value. Now that I’ve done it once, publishing doesn’t seem like an impossible task anymore. I’ve got two more manuscripts in the works at the moment and I can’t wait to see them come to fruition.

References

[1] Nichols, B.S., Leubner-Metzger, G. and Jansen, V.A.A. (2020) Between a rock and a hard place: adaptive sensing and site-specific dispersal. Ecology Letters.

[2] Lenser, T., Graeber, K., Cevik, Ö.S., Adigüzel, N., Dönmez, A.A., Grosche, C. et al . (2016). Developmental control and plasticity of fruit and seed dimorphism in Aethionema arabicum Plant Physiology.

Image credits

Student writing on laptop: StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay

Hourglass: NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Moon: Neven Krcmarek on Unsplash

Keep going: Sarah Ardin on Unsplash

Mountain climbing: Mathias Jensen on Unsplash

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