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.

Why is starting the most important step in any project?

This sounds like a trick question and the response should be ‘of course it is, if you don’t start there is no project’. So why mention it at all?

Why indeed?

If you are anything like me, you will have a number of projects that you would like to initiate. These include writing a short story for my daughters, putting together a zine, selling at least one piece of art and getting another peer-reviewed article published to improve my CV, among other things. I can spend ages coming up with ideas, writing lists and planning them in my head. However, most of them have not happened. Why is this?

Again, why indeed?

It is because, although I have good intentions, I cannot do everything and there are myriad distractions stopping me from starting some of these projects. It might seem more important to do the washing up and tidy out my box of magazines that I keep for collages, rather than putting a piece of art on an online shop. These tasks do not move me closer to my goal, but make me feel like something has been done, they give instant gratification and are a reward unto themselves.

So of you are aware of this procrastination, why not just do what you want?

There is only one reason, and that is fear. Fear that the story might not be perfect, fear that I will try to sell something and nobody will want to buy it, fear of trying something new and learning new skills, fear of meeting new people. All these fears and insecurities are masked by procrastination and the only way to over come them is by taking a small step towards your goal. That one small step will start your journey to your goal. It might be as simple as announcing your intent to your friends and getting them to provide support and nag you into doing something, or putting down a title or setting up an account with an online marketplace. Once you have taken that first step, you need to follow it with a second and by taking those initial small steps, momentum will grow and drive you to completing your goal. So for example, if you want to write something, if you write a small amount consistently every day you will soon have more words written than you expect!

So go, don’t procrastinate with social media or reading blogs, and take teh first baby step towards one of your goals!

What to do now that the references for inclusion in the systematic review have been selected?

You are now nearly ready to write up the systematic review. You have reviewed the full text versions of any references that looked promising for inclusion, culling out those that were inappropriate (remembering to record reasons and numbers). You have read the references that have been selected and are sitting down ready to write about the subject.

For an initial systematic review, it is acceptable to tabulate the relevant data and discuss it, without performing any further analysis. This is a purely descriptive approach and although you will provide your writing groups opinions on the results, you may not want to do any further analysis. However, to get the most out of a systematic review you will probably want to go further. This could involve one of two approaches, either a meta-analysis or a narrative synthesis.

What is a meta-analysis?

If the references detail studies that are similarly designed, with similar duration, populations and study drug/intervention use, then a meta-analysis is possible. Meta-analysis are typically used in medicine and are a statistical approach to estimating the treatment effect. By combining a number of different studies, larger populations can be explored and this can provide insight into rare complications or adverse events, or provide a better overview of clinical efficacy. A good introduction to what a meta-analysis is can be found here.

What is a narrative synthesis?

If the references all include very small study populations, or the study designs are different, for example the study lengths vary widely, then a narrative synthesis may be more appropriate. This approach involves the identification of themes and trends in the research, highlighting aspects that appear to influence outcomes or are important for the intervention. A good introduction to what a narrative synthesis is can be found here.

Do you have any tips of writing a good systematic review?

First off, write the manuscript with the PRISMA checklist next to you, to ensure that all the information that it requires is included. Also, even though it may appear that the conduct of a systematic review is rigid and does not allow any creativity it is important that the final manuscript is not overly dry, otherwise no-one will read it and it is wasted effort. Ensure that the story of why the systematic review was conducted is included and that each step or question builds logically from the previous one. You do not want to make any sudden jumps, as although you may find them intuitive, your readers quite likely will not. They have not been immersed in the review and discussions around it. To avoid this, you should get a colleague who has not been involved in any discussions about the systematic review at any point to review a near-final draft. They are likely to identify any gaps in the narrative and you should listen to them and if you disagree you discuss your reasons with that person. Also, don’t forget to thank them in the acknowledgements.

What next for your systematic review – Fully define your research hypothesis or question.

So you have decided that you are going to put together a systematic review and you have managed to persuade some of your colleagues and peers to be co-authors. What might you do next to get the review done?

Have a meeting.

The first thing I would recommend is that you get everyone who is to be involved together to define the problem. This is important because everybody will come to the table with different mind sets and different backgrounds, and also prior knowledge. Together you can make sure that everyone is agreed as to what problem will be addressed.

However, you should not go beyond that in the meeting, rather once the problem has been clarified you should end the meeting and get everybody to think of what hypothesis or question your review will be addressing. This way you will not end up with just the point of view of the most respected author or the person who shouts the loudest. Also, I find that my best ideas come when I am not really thinking directly about them and by leaving time to think you provide the opportunity for people to synthesise what was discussed and come up with any solutions or points that need clarification that were missed during the meeting.

This thinking time should not be extensive and should be defined during the meeting by booking the next meeting in for a couple of days later.

Have another meeting

Everybody has hopefully now thought about the issues and come up with ideas for the hypothesis. At this second meeting you will review everybody’s ideas. Let each person present their ideas in turn without allowing any questions to ensure that people are not intimidated and only present part of what they have come up with.

Once everybody’s ideas have been presented you can then discuss the merits of them all and finesse the hypothesis until you have it agreed by all authors. At this point you will need to discuss any limits people feel will be necessary for the systematic review, will it be limited for example by date, inclusion criteria, size or specific endpoint measures. These limits will be very important once the search has been run as you will typically need to filter huge numbers of abstracts to determine the few that will be included and as suggested by the type of review your process needs to be systematic.

What next?

The next step, once the hypothesis or question has been defined, is to define the search and that will be discussed in the next post.

References

I have taken a lot of the ideas for this post from an Accidental Creative podcast episode I listened to on brainstorming. This episode can be found here and is well worth a listen.

Some thoughts on systematic reviews

I remember that in my first year of university (in 2000) we were taken to the library and shown how to search the Beilstein Handbook of Organic Chemistry to identify previous instances of reactions we might be interested in. There was a wall of books and it was quite intimidating. However, I never had to look at those books because there was also an online searchable database which made the task much easier. I cannot imagine how much time must have been spent by chemists searching for reactions and reaction conditions, that was suddenly freed up by taking the data online.

This has happened with most data sources and we can now search through records of journal publications and patents with ease. This I believe has led to the increase in the publication of the systematic review and the decrease in the importance placed on narrative reviews. It has changed so much that, nowadays, before many research projects are fully initiated, a systematic review is undertaken to explore, among other things, what is already known about the topic and whether the research project is novel. Owing to their inclusion of all available, relevant data systematic reviews are considered the pinnacle of evidence in evidence-based medicine [Wikipedia]. This is, in my mind, embodied by the Cochrane Collaboration, which has a handbook on how to perform systematic reviews for inclusion in their database.

It is, therefore, important that all researchers understand what a systematic review is and how to perform one. In addition, it is important to know what to do with the output. Is it okay to summarize the data, or should it be synthesised in some way, either through meta-analysis or narrative synthesis. Furthermore, we need to be able to judge the quality of published systematic reviews so that we can judge their quality and determine whether there is any bias inherent in them, or flaws in the methods used.

The PRISMA Statement

The PRISMA Statement is a great help, as it details everything to be included in a systematic review and its planning and I have found this useful when planning, performing and writing up systematic reviews, as it provides a useful checklist to bear in mind.

I want to start my systematic review. What should I do?

The very first thing you need to do is ensure you are asking an interesting question that is relevant and that you are asking it in the correct fashion. You should discuss your idea with colleagues who work in the same field and have similar interests, and also read any relevant papers that you are aware off. This might highlight aspects that you are unaware of or have overlooked. It will also provide the groundwork for the next step, which is putting together your hypothesis and developing your search strategy which will identify the references that will potentially be included in the review. You should also work out who your co-authors will be and each person’s role. For example, you will need somebody to do the search and at least two people to go through the results separately and someone to adjudicate any conflicting views about whether or not to include a manuscript in the review.

Once this is done you are ready to think about actually starting work on your systematic review, and I shall offer my thoughts on those steps in the next few posts.

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.

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.

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.