Why should you always finish your projects?

Having said in my last blog post that starting a project was the most important step, there is a step that is nearly as important. That step is finishing a project.

Why is finishing a project so important?

Finishing a project is important for a number of reasons and some of these are listed below.

  1. If you do not finish you cannot ‘ship’ the work, i.e. it is wasted effort
  2. You only know how successful something has been when it is finished
  3. You do not get to be smug about how you completed something
  4. If it is important it will nag at you until it is done

So how do I ensure I finish projects?

The best way I have found is to break the project down into small manageable chunks that can be ticked off one by one until the project is complete. This way I get a series of small victories to help keep me motivated and can easily determine my progress through a project. Invariably there will be changes to original plans and this should be reflected in timelines and goals at later stages.

For example, for the past month I have been trying to draw a quick sketch of something that I have seen discarded on the street and post it on my Instagram feed. This way I have motivated myself to do some sketching (albeit extremely quick sketches) and each additional day completed encourages me not to fail at the next day. I do not want to break the chain. This is suggested in one of Austin Kleon’s books (I think it might be Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered which is well worth a read). It is alos inspired by Lisa Congdon who has spoken about doing daily self-initiated projects to learn new skills and help create something to show (her books Whatever You Are, Be a Good One: 100 Inspirational Quotations Hand-Lettered by Lisa Congdon is an excellent example of one of these ‘passion projects’. She also wrote Art Inc.: The Essential Guide for Building Your Career as an Artist which is very good).

What if I discover I do not want to finish a project?

I would suggest that you try to finish it to some degree as it might be that you are having a dip in your motivation and that by continuing you may both learn something and also become re-interested in the work. I find this often happens after the initial creative work is complete and it is time to revise and edit a piece of writing. This can be tedious at times, however, perseverance is the key and once this is done there is the excitement of the final push for completion and the joy of seeing the final piece of work.

There may be times when you cannot bear to continue with something and if you have tried several times to complete it, it might be necessary to put it away for a while and do something else, so you can come back to it later re-invigorated. If this does not work you could try to get someone else to input as this can breathe life back into a project. If this fails and you are set on ditching the work then you should try to complete the latest step you are on and get it into a state where it can hibernate. That way if you want to come back to it, it will be there waiting for you.

What should happen after the search is complete, should we immediately start writing the systematic review?

Once you have done the first version of the search, you may find that you have too many results or not many results at all.

Too many results?

If you have too many results it is likely that your search was too broad and that rather than manually checking each reference, using the filters provided by the search engines could help refine the results. Some possibilities for refining the search are to limit it to a specific language (English, for example), or to just searching the abstract and title, rather than the full text.

Too few results?

This might be what you expected and could be the basis for the systematic review, highlighting the need for more studies in a particular area. However, you may want to broaden your search if you feel that not all relevant manuscripts have been captured. This could be done by including additional keywords, or removing limits (e.g. looking for all studies and not just those in humans).

What if the number of results seems fine?

Once you are happy that the search has captured all the appropriate results, you will want to save a list of the results, including references, title and abstract, as well as recording the initial number of results found. You will need to keep track of this for the PRISMA flowchart. These results should then be distributed to the individuals that have been allocated as reviewers and they should review each abstract and decide whether it meets the inclusion criteria defined for the review. These criteria should have been defined before the search and it is important that both reviewers use them. The reason why each abstract is rejected should also be recorded. This can be done according to the PICOS, with abstracts rejected according to not containing appropriate participants, intervention, comparator, outcome or setting, or for another reason which should be recorded.

In a perfect world both reviewers will select the same abstracts at this stage, however, if they do not, an additional reviewer should arbitrate whether the abstract should be kept. If there is confusion, the abstract should be kept, for full text review (the next step).

After the abstracts have been filtered, should we start writing?

No. You will want to get the full version of each reference and these will also need to be reviewed, in a similar manner to the abstracts, to ensure that no inappropriate references are included. At this stage, you can note any manuscripts in the references that also look appropriate for the systematic review. This will enable you to check that they have been included and if not they can be added (and noted on the PRISMA flowchart).

This process of filtering can be long and tedious, however, it should enable all the relevant literature for the systematic review to be identified. It is at this stage that the writing can commence!

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.

What should be considered when writing a first draft?

By the time you get to writing a first draft of a manuscript I would expect the following steps to have already been completed:

  • Author list confirmed
  • Data fully analysed and data for the manuscript selected
  • Target journal selected
  • Target journal author guidelines read and any appropriate guidelines (e.g. word counts, required sections) noted down, preferably on a cover page to the manuscript
  • Outline written and content agreed/commented on by all authors
  • Extended outline written and agreed/commented on by all authors

If an extended outline exists…

If an extended outline has already been written then the jump to a full first draft should be fairly easy. The bulleted text will be made into complete sentences and linking text added. At this stage further logical gaps in the “story” might be identified and highlight the need for additional introductory text or research. However, this should be fairly minor as these issues will hopefully be identified at the extended outline stage.

If an extended outline does not exist…

I would suggest that if one does not exist then it is beneficial to put one together before writing the manuscript in prose, even if you are not sending it to co-authors for review. This will make the writing of the first draft much easier and should enable the logical flow of the manuscript to be worked out as discussed in my previous blog post.

Remember to write to journal guidelines at this stage to avoid unnecessary editing later on.

What is an extended outline and why might it be beneficial?

Once an outline has been written, discussed with co-authors, revised as appropriate in line with any comments and been agreed upon, the next step is to bulk out the outline. I believe that producing an extended outline in bulleted form, rather than a first draft written in prose is the best next step. This ‘extended’ outline should be the first draft in bullet form and contain everything that is expected to go into the first full draft.

Why an additional step?

In my experience, it is much easier to make revisions to the order information is presented in, when it is in bullet form. It might be that as you write you realise that the logical flow from one point to the next is wrong and that it is might be improved by shifting bits around. Or it could be that when your co-authors read the manuscript they highlight places where more information is needed, which could again change the flow of the document. If the document is written in full sentences, it can be hard to make these changes as it is difficult to see where it might fit. It is much easier to revise a ‘work in progress’ that a ‘fait accompli’. Overall, I have found that adding in this step saves time in the long run and often results in a better manuscript.

Why write an outline?

I, like many other people I expect, have previously tried to write a novel. I attempted it as part of NaNoWriMo, in which people endeavor to write a 50,000 word ‘novel’ during the month of November. I sadly failed in this attempt and looking back I can see two reasons why I failed. Firstly, although I liked the idea I was sadly not that dedicated to spending all my spare time writing and so only managed about 25,000 words. Secondly, I ‘pantsed’ rather than planned – that is I thought that the great novel would flow fully formed without any real forethought or planning. The resultant work was a complete mess, with what amounted to three discrete short stories linked by events, none of which were that good. This experience has shown me the value of planning or outlining at least some aspects of a novel before starting and in future this is what I will be doing.

Why is this relevant to writing about science?

I feel that the same can be true when writing about science, although often to a lesser degree, as the planning and research for conducting experiments should hopefully lend an idea of structure. Nonetheless, whilst it is often easy to list of the key points in the narrative of the research, these can be lost or forgotten when writing a prose document resulting in a loss of coherence.

I would, therefore, suggest writing an outline when starting to work on a document. This should contain the key points for each section and detail any data to be included. This outline will enable you to see if the manuscript makes sense and if there are any gaps, either data gaps or gaps in reasoning, before more words are in place and the manuscript is more difficult to revise. The outline will also allow all proposed authors a chance to input into the manuscript at an early stage and make suggestions that could potentially strengthen the final piece of work.

How much detail should be included in an outline?

The first outline should not be overly detailed as this allows for the best discussion about the proposed structure and makes people more likely to offer input. I would suggest that key statements are included, without over much detail, in the introduction and discussion sections and more detail in the methods and discussion section as these are fixed and will enable people to make more informed comments on the discussion section.

Could an example be given?

If I were to be writing a manuscript on the epidemiology of type 2 diabetes in the South Asian population of the UK, the first outline for the introduction might look something like this:

  • Type 2 diabetes is a major public health issue and the incidence is increasing
  • Type 2 diabetes is more prevalent in South Asian individuals
  • It has been suggested that there are differences between South Asian and White people in the presentation and outcomes of type 2 diabetes
  • For example lower BMI cut-offs have been suggested for overweight and obesity in South Asian individuals
  • The South Asian population is not in fact a single entity, but rather made up of a number of different sub-populations
  • This database study investigates the clinical characteristics at diagnosis of type 2 diabetes for people from these sub-populations

This (fictional) example hopefully highlights the broad nature of statements made and it can be seen how these build up to the research question, showing why the issue is important. Once all authors have agreed upon the first outline, the points can be expanded upon and fully referenced.

If the message is incorrect, then the document fails…

I have just started perusing The Craft of Editing  by Michael Alley, which is subtitled A guide for managers, scientists, and engineers. Right near the start three different types of editing are highlighted, editing for content, editing for style and editing for form. However, the most important thing emphasized at this point is that whilst a lot of time might be spent discussing editing for style or form, these are relatively unimportant compared with editing for content.

Editing for content is defined as ensuring that the information included is correct, complete, appropriate for the audience, appropriate for the purpose and acceptable for distribution. This is generally managed by a different person to the other types of review as it will often require knowledge of the topic being discussed.

This is extremely important as we might have a beautifully written piece with no grammatical or spelling errors that is completely wrong for its intended use, and does not convey the correct key message, or even worse contains incorrect information and misleads rather than educates. This is very well put in the book where it states:

 If the message is incorrect, then the document fails, no matter how well the message is communicated or what form it is in.

I think this is something we all need to remember as we try to write or edit scientific literature.

In case you want to read this book it can be found on Amazon here: The Craft of Editing: A Guide for Managers, Scientists, and Engineers