The late great English fantasy fiction author Terry Pratchett once wrote that ‘people like to be told what they already know’. People expect to read that a ‘dog bites a man’, for example, rather than the other way around. This is definitely something to bear in mind when writing academic articles and it is a key tip that we teach in our workshops for early-career researchers. This is also one reason that research publishing is mostly incremental: building slowly but surely on already known results, the things that people, especially your peer reviewers, already know.
This Terry Pratchett ‘nugget of knowledge’ also highlights an important issue with the academic peer-review process: your paper is more likely to pass successfully through peer review if the results and conclusions of your work are ‘as expected’. Just ask Professor Dan Shechtman: In 2011, he won a Nobel prize in chemistry for discovering quasicrystals, overturning a long-held assumption that these structures do not repeat themselves. However, as he highlights in a recent register-to-read article, no one accepted that this result could be correct: Professor Shechtman struggled for several years to get his ground-breaking paper published, was pushed back by peer reviewers many times, hailed as a ‘quasi-scientist’, and even told to quit his job.
Shechtman argues, perhaps with some justification, that this treatment was not only unfair but that it held back his research from eventual publication and acceptance in his field. He now advocates an additional institutional in-house system of ‘pre-peer review’ such that all papers aimed at submission from within a research institution are first thoroughly assessed by colleagues. This makes a lot of sense. Not only will submissions ending up at journals be better, but rejection rates are likely to fall and mistakes can be caught ‘in-house’ before articles are sent out for peer review and careers are potentially affected.
But ‘this won’t work for me’, I hear you cry! ‘I work at a small research instution with no other experts in my field, and anyway, none of my colleagues can write well in English. How can they assess the quality of my written work?’
Charlesworth can help. Did you know that Charlesworth subject editors are all PhD holders who conduct active research in your field? Our pre-peer review services, offered as part of the Charlesworth Premium Package of editing services, can provide you with comments on your work as if you were submitting to a journal before you ever reach that stage. Get ahead of the competition and enhance the quality of your submitted work so journal peer reviewers don’t stick the knife in!
So much for eliminating mistakes and increasing your chances of your articles passing successfully through peer review. How can you avoid getting into the same situation as Professor Shechtman where no one believes your result ‘can possibly be correct’? The answer here is to keep our friend Terry Prachett in mind when working on your next paper. Tell people ‘things that they already know’. Build your argument incrementally from start to finish citing already published work as stepping stones for the reader. This way, when a reviewer gets to the end of your article, he or she will think: ‘I agree’, ‘that’s the result I was expecting’.
If you have questions about academic writing in general or developing your message or your paper in particular, then Charlesworth can help. Our pre-peer review services, part of the Charlesworth Premium Package of editing services, provide invaluable tools for researchers around the world looking to give their papers the edge when submitting to journals. Why not get your writing edited and polished by one of our PhD-level specialists working in the same research field as you?
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