Inspiration and unspiration

Writing a scientific article is a lot of work. In my old natural scientist days I used to wonder, how there could be more than three authors in a paper. Sure, some where added more as a courtesy, or based on dissemination of ideas, but now I know for sure that often you could split the job at hand into tiny pieces, which were all carried out by different people. In the natural science-type paper, achieving coherence was of course a challenge.

Now having written a couple of social science papers, and being in the process of writing yet a few, I’ve learnt that one can have a nice feeling of control when writing alone. At the same time, it is a challenge to spot contradictory arguments, bad language and “the unsaid”, by which I mean the thoughts and ideas that the author takes for granted, and imagines everyone else understands without pinpointing. The feeling of power over one’s own writing is thus diminished by the obstacles and hurdles one needs to get past, alone.

Ilkka and I were talking the other day about writing in this profession. It is amazing how scientists are essentially picked based on their intellect and fine tuning to detail, rigorous and just principles and methods in research, even introverted characteristics. Nevertheless they are rewarded based on the amount they publish. We call this simply the Publish or Perish -principle. It is thus not surprising that a lot that is published, is not high quality. Not so in terms of the scientific content (novelty value of ideas is low, or the paper is a near replication of another paper written by the same author), nor in the literary sense of the word. This problem is made worse by the fact that most internationally sound journals are in English, which naturally is not the first language of all scientists who (need to) publish there. Our discussion was concluded by the remark that no wonder people publish crap!

Getting back to my writing (which of course abides to the highest of standards ;)). I do not imagine to get by alone. I would diiiie for more papers to be written with co-authors, but understand that, at the same time, this is a phase I am going through as an independent scientist, and I either make it to the other side (form a research group), or “perish”. There are, however, ways to get around the problem of “self”.

I, for one, rely on colleagues for inspiration. A thing may not take on immediately, but brewing ideas is also good. I never throw out notes about ideas I have scratched the surface of, at least not before I have totally lost interest in them. More likely, when I see the notes again, I think: Why on earth did I not follow this thread further? and I see new opportunities, and I take on the project again. This has happened to me more than once. Newspaper articles are another good source of inspiration. I sometimes even use them as references when I start writing my own article, usually only to discard them later on, once I have more “scientific” sources to base my opinions and research on. Nevertheless, colleagues and the society are an endless origin for interesting topics and information.

At the end of a writing process, I always use my dearest friends and colleagues for checking my work. They are the first ones to throw their criticism at me, and I test my hypotheses on them. I am lucky to have such a resource at my disposal, although I imagine everyone does. Only not everyone is as comfortable showing their unpublished work around, perhaps in fear of being ridiculed, copied, or merely for not willing to prolong the process of the peer-review that in any case takes place after submission to a journal. I still think it is a good way to strengthen co-worker and collaboration networks, being open about one’s research and, at the same time, exposing oneself to new ideas and ways of looking at the world (or article).

To conclude this rant about inspiration and unspiration in scientific writing, I must say, the perish in publish or perish is not really an option, so as uninspiring as it is, we must learn to live with it, and gain strength from our collaborative networks, friends and colleagues. Because after all, we do the science together, and we are part of the society we so wish to serve!

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