Why being nice can be a great strategy at work

When I was at school, one of the things that my English teacher would tell us was that we shouldn’t use the word nice. He considered it bland and thought that there were more descriptive words that better expressed what something was like. However, I think that nice can be extremely good at times, especially when you are considering your interactions with other people.

Why should you be nice?

The world of academia/work is quite small and it is likely that anybody you meet once you will meet again if they remain in the same area. However, when we next meet them they could be in another job or publishing work we find interesting. If this is the case then they are probably someone you want to talk to and potentially collaborate with. However, if when you met them the first time you were rude or brusque, then they may remember this and be less inclined to spend time with you. As the cliché says “what goes around, comes around”. Conversely, if you were pleasant when you first met them or provided help or advice they will remember you favourably, and good things may come from the next meeting.

Surely this is a cynical approach to the world

This may be considered cynical, however, it is also a valid approach to life, and if you start making a conscious effort in this, it will eventually become a habit. Furthermore, if you are consistent you may develop a reputation as a helpful individual who is good to know and opportunities may come your way that you were not aware of.

A very good discussion on this appears in the book Have Fun, Get Paid: How to Make a Living with Your Creativity. This book focusses on creativity and creative industries, however, I feel it is applicable beyond this area and would recommend it.

Why you should publish in many venues

Many venues should not mean many journals. Journals are only one possible venue for your work and by limiting yourself to them you limit the potential reach of your work. Other scientific outlets are conferences/congresses, presentations to universities and societies, scientific blogs and magazines. If you are planning on publishing your work then one potential route would be to present it at a conference, either as a poster or an oral presentation, before writing it up for a journal article. Once the work has been presented at a conference it can become part of a talk to give at other universities or societies, and this talk once it has been given several times could be written up either as a review of the work of your lab for submission to a journal or magazine, or published on a blog.

By presenting the work in these different ways, a number of different audiences can be reached and introduced to your work. They can also be excellent as opportunities to network and grow your circle of associates, possibly helping to bring about collaborations and secure funding. I would therefore suggest that if you are early in your career you should be trying to get your work seen and heard of. You might not be able to be invited to present your work to another university or interested group. However, you should be submitting your work, once it has reached sufficient quantity and quality, to congresses, or offering to talk about your work to undergraduates or other research groups you know. These might also have the added benefit of providing new thoughts and ideas on your work from people with fresh perspectives, as well as identifying any holes that need to be looked into.

Another way to be able to talk about your research with more people is to volunteer for societies and attend local interest group meetings. This may bring you into contact with influential people you will not meet in any other way.

How knowing your target audience could improve your writing

Sometimes when you read a scientific article you might feel that the authors are belittling you or aiming way to high, and you will put down the article and find something else to read. When this happens, the first thing I tend to consider is whether I am the target audience for that particular piece of writing. If I am, it might be that the authors had not decided on a target audience when it was written or have targeted the wrong publication venue, or it might just be that I am particularly interested or uninterested in that subject and so either no more or less than might be expected.

Why am I telling you this?

When we write, we often write to express ourselves and our thoughts and ideas on a topic, writing what interests us and not thinking about the person who will eventually read it. This is like designing a pair of gloves that fits us exactly and trying to market it as being suitable for everybody. We must remember that the point of scientific writing, if we aim to get it published, is for it to be read and thus spread our ideas, not solely for the sake of writing.

What should be done to help write appropriately for the audience?

Before you write your first outline, you should decide who will be your audience; not in a vague manner, for example saying anyone who is interested in hand care, but as precisely as possible, for example hospital hand care specialists. Once this audience has been identified you want to know what level of knowledge they will have on this topic. In the example, hospital specialists will likely already have a high level of knowledge and so would not want to have the basics of hand care told to them. This will make them assume the article is not for them and reduce the likelihood of them reading it. So in this case you could start the article at a high level, covering only the most pertinent points for the topic being discussed.

On the other hand, if your audience is hand care trainees you will want to include the basics, as you cannot assume that all trainees will have the requisite basic knowledge to make sense of the article. If the basics are missing then you could place a barrier in front of much of your audience.

Using ‘personas’

In certain industries, the target audience is identified and idealized ‘personas’ are created to emphasise key aspects that need to be catered for. A well-known version of these is the broad terms given to people born at different times or target voter populations during elections (e.g. Mondeo Man). This allows broad generalizations to be made to highlight differences between generations and allow the average member of this group to be targeted, hopefully allowing the maximum proportion of this group to be successfully reached.

I would not suggest that you should create these personas but they should serve to remind us that a target audience will often have a lot in common and this can be catered for. However, if we write from the beginning with our audience in mind then our writing is more likely to be relevant, and read, by the people we want it to reach.

Why you cannot succeed unless you are ready to fail

When I was younger I didn’t enjoy trying new things and meeting new people (truth be told I still don’t enjoy this), so I didn’t join clubs that I might have enjoyed or speak to people I did not know. I lived my life doing the things I knew and sticking to them. I was afraid that I would try something and fail or make a fool of myself, and this even extended into my work during my PhD. I was loathe to try new techniques because I would have to admit I didn’t know what to do and ask for help. However, when I eventually did learn a new technique it might not work for what I was doing at that time, but could open up new avenues of research to explore and discoveries to make. I shied away from using HPLC and LCMS for these reasons and in the end they were what helped me complete my PhD.

What did I learn from this?

In the end I looked back at what I was doing and realised what I was missing out on; how this fear had made my life less than it could have been. I decided that I would try new things and be prepared to fail. I might not make a big impression, but am willing to approach people at conferences and try to start conversations, or learn a new skill that might help my work. By spending my life not trying things, I learned that even not trying I might fail as I have not even had a go. This new approach to life is not easy as I regularly fall back on old habits of avoidance, I am often the person standing on his own in a big group of people. It is at these times that I have to remind myself every day of the things I have accomplished by trying more things. I have worked with interesting people and learned new skills, and my life feels fuller because of this.

What should you do?

So my advice would be to put yourself out of your comfort zone and try something new. It does not have to be a large step, it might just be saying hello to someone whilst in the queue to get coffee or visiting a next door lab or office to introduce yourself. These little steps will steadily grow your comfort zone and each little success or failure will teach you something, even if it isn’t what you thought it would be.

Don’t just write, make sure you read as well

One of my favourite quotes about writing comes from Austin Kleon who says:

“In every undergraduate creative writing workshop I was part of, there was that one kid who said, ‘I like to write, but I don’t really like to read,’ and it was evident right away that you could pretty much write that kid off completely.”

This is because if we write without reading first we cannot build upon the work of others and we cannot learn from people who have published before. This should be self-evident but often when we are researching and experimenting, we will do a search to help us overcome an issue and will skim through to locate what is hopefully the answer. You might not fully read the introduction or conclusions, not really caring for the context or analysis for someone else.  We do not have time to read each article in depth and have time for research, for writing, for lecturing, for mentoring and for a life outside the research institute. Yet here I am suggesting that you should be reading more in our already packed lives.

If we do not want to learn and develop then this is not something that you should commit to, however, if you do there is always time to be found, even if it is just 15 minutes a day, possibly whilst sitting on the toilet. To improve you should read great writing; this does not have to be a ‘classic’ like Crime and Punishment, but should be something relevant. I would suggest that as writing up research is akin to non-fiction writing, it can be beneficial to read scientific non-fiction books, which can also provide ideas for research or help develop new ways of thinking. This can be science magazines, books or blogs.

Some suggestions for things to read

However, we shouldn’t limit ourselves, great writing is great writing and we can always learn something from it, hopefully, how to tell the best stories possible.

Austin Kleon – http://tumblr.austinkleon.com/post/33792291289

Make sure you write regularly

Having told you not necessarily to publish everything in a traditional manner, I would recommend that you start trying to write regularly. This could be typing up experimental methods and results so that they are ready as soon as the decision to publish is made, putting together review articles or free-writing around a research idea.
This writing will hopefully improve your productivity, as well as helping to organize your thoughts and create new ideas, as well as potentially helping you overcome any stalling points in your research. It might be that you are trying to develop a total synthesis and you are stuck on a single step, by searching the literature and making notes on what others attempting similar transformations have done. This is likely something you are already doing, but by keeping written notes you will be have something that could potentially be the basis of a review article and you may notice connections that you wouldn’t spot if you just read and highlighted articles.
Finally, practice makes perfect and by writing more your communication skills should improve.

Don’t dilute your output

This probably sounds obvious, and it should be. Nowadays, scientists and researchers are judged, rightly or wrongly, by their publication history. This has contributed to the explosion in the amount of scientific literature available and if you browse it you will often see work that makes you wonder why it was published and what it adds. The obvious answer to this is that it adds to someone’s publication list and that is the only reason it was written up and submitted to a journal. Do you want to be one of the people who add to this pile of ‘irrelevant’ literature? I would hazard a guess that you do not want this. Therefore, this first piece of advice must be given with a proviso that you should write regularly, but only publish relevant work. This might necessitate a change in the way you think about publishing, for example if you have a series of experiments that confirm somebody else’s work that you have done as the groundwork for a research stream, you may want to publish them on your own website if there have been other people also publishing on this. This means that you will not be diluting your work and you will be known for your strong publications.

How should you decide who will be an author?

When deciding who should be an author, you might feel pressure to include people who have not directly contributed to the work being written about. For example, people who secured funding for the work or who are important in the department that you work in, might say that they should be authors.

As this might lead to questions about ghostwriting and honorary authorship, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors produced a uniform set of criteria for authorship. These are:

Authors “should have participated sufficiently in the work to take public responsibility for relevant portions of the content” and should meet all three conditions below:

  • Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
  • Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
  • Final approval of the version to be published; AND
  • Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

These criteria are also included in GPP2 produced by the International Society for Medical Publication Professionals, which was published in BMJ.

If a person has contributed to some steps but not others then they should be included in the acknowledgements. This might include people who have helped perform an experiment, but not helped in the design, or who have proof read the article prior to submission.

The guidelines also suggest that if the study is very large there could be an authoring committee that takes full responsibility for the content of the manuscript. The full list of study investigators can then be included as an appendix. The article can then be published on behalf of everyone who is involved and if a person who is not on the authoring committee wants to include the manuscript on their CV they can do so.

Hopefully, by having articles published by authority figures on this topic you can feel better able to push back on any demands from people who you feel should not be an author.

References

ICMJE authorship criteria – http://www.icmje.org/recommendations/browse/roles-and-responsibilities/defining-the-role-of-authors-and-contributors.html

GPP2 – http://www.ismpp.org/gpp2

Might checklists improve your manuscript?

I started off as an editor, editing manuscripts to house style, as well as copy editing them to some degree to hopefully improve their readability. Each time I saw a document I would have to check for different aspects of style or language. Often this was not the most exciting thing to do, especially when I had seen the document previously. To ensure that crucial steps were not missed we had a series of checklists that could be used enabling you to tick of each task as it was done.

These checklists were not prescriptive with hundreds of elements, rather they had a few elements (typically up to 10) with the emphasis on steps that were often missed or left incomplete. For example when proof reading a manuscript the checklist items included:

  1. Check that all references are mentioned in the text
  2. Check that all tables and figures are referenced appropriately in the text
  3. Double check the title for typos

The title was included on the list because it is often difficult to spot a typo when you know what should be there, it is a short piece of text and it is often very large.

This use of checklists is discussed extremely well in The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right and I highly recommend that you read it.

Don’t aim to write scientifically, aim to write well

When we write something we are often trying to convey who we are, or more specifically who we want to be perceived to be, to the writer. This means that we will alter the tone of our writing according to the audience, an email to a friend will be different from a job application letter. When writing a scientific manuscript it is, therefore, often the case that people write it in a manner they perceive to be ‘scientific’.

What is scientific writing?

When I say scientific writing I mean writing with many technical words intended to convey the idea that you know what you are talking about. These technical words will often be jargon and in some cases might be better conveyed using ‘everyday’ language. This will limit the audience of your work to others who understand the jargon that you are using, as well as potentially making the manuscript more difficult to read.

How can scientific writing be avoided?

Once you have written your manuscript you should get other people to review it, at least one of whom should be reviewing the language used. This should be someone you trust as the feedback might not be what you expect from your ‘perfect’ draft. When you ask this person to review the manuscript you should specifically ask them to keep an eye out for overly ‘scientific’ language.

A second thing that you can do is to read the draft out loud once you have written it. By reading out loud, even if it seems odd, you can identify any issues with ‘pacing’ or where jargon might interfere with the ‘flow’ of the manuscript.

A word of caution

Do not remove scientific words if they are necessary, you should not dumb down just to improve readability. This is a tightrope that you will have to walk, but hopefully by asking others for their opinions this will help navigate the issue.