The mentor’s role in improving students’ scientific writing

25 January 2010 § Leave a Comment

Some of my friends on twitter have been talking about how to become a better scientific writer, that is, how to write about their research for publication in professional outlets such as peer-reviewed journals and grant proposals. @scientistlady directed me to a page at the Bio Careers site entitled “Skills To Help You Become A Better Scientific Editor.” The posting is written by Chris Gunter, also known as @girlscientist. Chris is an excellent source of information on this topic, having served in a variety of leadership positions in research institutions and scientific publications including Science and Nature.

Chris’ advice is eminently sound: read lots, join a journal club, summarize papers about new research and keep a file of the summaries. Like most good advice about how to improve one’s writing, this advice is sensible and easy to follow, and doing so will take time and effort. There is one bit of advice, however, which I think requires attention: “Ask your mentor to let you help review grant applications or manuscripts.”

Chances are, your PI receives referee requests, All. The. Time. It’s also likely they could use some help. Journal editors are generally just fine with students or postdocs assisting with (let’s be honest, this often means writing) reviews of papers, as long as the editor is notified that you have assisted, and you agree to keep the paper completely confidential. Many journals also mail back the anonymized referee reports after the decision has been made, so you can see how your report stacked up against the others.

Some of the best mentors I have known have conducted mini-study sections for their labs, gathering the graduate students together and parsing out a number of grants among them, then reconvening for detailed summaries. Again, confidentiality is crucial, but this is another great way to learn.

I agree that graduate students should offer their mentors help reading and refereeing papers and grant proposals, and I would think (and hope!) that most mentors would give their students a chance to help in this way. Nonetheless, I think that mentors should approach this as a teaching task that’s taken seriously. The mentor should read the paper or proposal as well, think about what he or she would say in a review, and take the opportunity to have a tutorial session about the proposal or manuscript with the student. Reviewing a paper or proposal takes a significant amount of subject-area knowledge and understanding of the field which most students are not likely to have. The aim of a reviewer is not just to evaluate the methods and conclusions in the paper or proposal, but to evaluate the work’s value as a contribution to advancing the field. Only someone with experience and insight greater in a discipline than what someone just starting out can be expected to have is in a position to evaluate work from this perspective. If mentor and student work on the review together, taking the time to improve the prose style as well as refine its argumentative strategy, the student will benefit enormously. At the same time, the mentor’s direct supervision assures that the review meets a high standard for quality and relevance.

My comments come from a few years’ experience as an editor at Evolution: Education & Outreach, during which time I have come to appreciate the importance of reviews which are able to position the work for review in relation to the central questions of the discipline in which they are intended to make a contribution.

If a PI or mentor were to take my advice, offering students the chance to help with reviews will most likely result in more work for him- or her-self, not less. Nonetheless, the quality of the student’s work will improve in the short and long term, and the quality of his or her reviews will, as well. From a purely self-interested point of view, this will benefit the mentor. He or she who will come to be known as someone who can be trusted to generate insight and to train graduate students who can do so.

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