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My friend wrote a fantastic paper in their scientific field. I believe it is truly ground-breaking but it calls a lot of existing theory into question. If he's correct it will force many accepted articles to have to be rewritten.

Perhaps because this paper is controversial, then, my friend has faced a very uphill battle to get it published. It deals with quite some difficult-to-grasp mathematical models and concepts. It's in a field of science and an area of that field where experiments to prove things are simply not feasible, and instead, hypotheses rely on models to explain observations of large-scale real-world processes.

I'm deliberately avoiding mentioning what area of science this paper is in because I do not want them to know it's about them, in case they see this. Because while I feel that while their paper is great, on the other hand the writing needs some love. If the writing is improved, this paper could make this person's career. I'm a published writer and I have been paid to edit many things, but not scientific writing. I want to help them.

I would like to know what the best approach is for preparing myself to be able to edit papers for submission to any given scientific journal in any given field. I would think one great approach would be to read lots of articles in such journals. Do you know of any good guides? Are there any online sites where people can publish papers prior to submitting them to journals in order to get public comments and feedback to hone their work? What are some novel steps that could be taken? I just want to help.

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In general, I don't suggest posting a paper in public prior to publication as it increases risk of getting scooped. –  Benjamin Jun 25 at 16:51
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You may also find the answers to this question helpful. You'll probably want to address these concerns early in the paper. academia.stackexchange.com/questions/18491/… –  mhwombat Jun 25 at 16:57
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If you are looking for advice on how to properly edit papers for publication, you probably don't have the experience and expertise to consider your friend's paper "fantastic" and "truly ground-breaking." It might be good to temper the excitement and get some initial feedback from an academic adviser. –  Brian P Jun 25 at 17:06
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@Benjamin: You are aware of www.arxiv.org, I hope? Thousands of academics are going against your suggestion every day. It is perfectly fine to give advice which goes against standard academic practice...but if you don't explain yourself, it is not very helpful to do so. (Many veteran academics believe that making your work publicly available is the best way to ensure that it is not scooped or stolen. This has been discussed frequently on this site.) –  Pete L. Clark Jun 25 at 17:15
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How about asking said professor for help with writing up the paper? –  Tobias Kildetoft Jun 25 at 18:25

2 Answers 2

up vote 9 down vote accepted

You've already talked about reading up journal articles in the field, so I'll skip that. On top of that, there are a few ways.

Follow the journal's format guide

Ask your friend which journal is the next target. Go to visit the journal website and look for the "instruction to authors." You can find format-related instruction there. A format compliant article is less likely to trigger an instant rejection/return.

Read about scientific writing

There are a few guides that I consider pretty useful:

  1. The Craft of Scientific Writing by Alley is perhaps a classic for engineer-type of writing. It also provide a good collection of tips and gems for different sections.

  2. Essentials of Writing Biomedical Research Paper by Zeiger is a wonderful desktop reference for biochemical type of writing. It also provides a lot of good vs. bad examples.

  3. Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded by Schimel is a bit of a black sheep. It does not teach you how to write, but it gives an excellent account on how to chain up or arrange ideas for maximal impact, done in the levels of the whole paper, to section, paragraph, sentence, and syntax. It also draws heavily from techniques used in fiction writing, which is quite intuitive.

  4. The Craft of Research by Booth et. al. does not purely focus on writing, but also discusses how to set up arguments, present concepts. It may be a bit more hands on for you, probably more suitable for your friend who is doing the writing.

  5. A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, Eighth Edition: Chicago Style for Students and Researchers (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing) by Turabian is an overall very useful desktop reference. It complements the Craft of Research.

Talk to the specialists

If the paper is really that controversial, I think you should talk to some people who have a good command in that particular field and get a gist of how to present or package the ideas with maximal chance of being considered.

Hire a professional editor

It's also prudent to know your limit. If you feel this is too much, then you should ask your friend to get help from the institute's English language support or hire a professional scientific editor. Editors can come with different specialties, some are experienced in medical writing, some are in science. Check their portfolio and try to match the article type as best as you can.

I said this because there is a problem in your question, if you feel that you're not capable of editing a scientific paper, how come you feel confident to evaluate his work with certainly such as: "My friend wrote a fantastic paper in their scientific field. I believe it is truly ground-breaking but it calls a lot of existing theory into question. If he's correct it will force many accepted articles to have to be rewritten?"

I don't mean to be insulting, just wish to point out that professional works sometimes are best left to professionals, especially when we don't have time to become one.

Best of luck, and I wish your friend a successful publishing process.


Disclaimer for everyone:

When reading/evaluating my answer, please be mindful that in no way I am agreeing that the paper is ground-breaking or fantastic. I merely provide resources to the questioner to improve his/her ability to comprehend and edit a scientific paper.

Whether someone with limited experience or capability can do ground-breaking work is not in the scope of this answer, and I have no comment either way. I just want to point out that I have not read the paper so I can't comment.

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The latter part of your answer elicited a blip from my crankometer (not that you are a crank, but that you may be encouraging a crankish mentality): namely, the idea that it is possible to do fantastic, truly ground-breaking work in a field in which one has so little experience as not to know how to write it up properly or too little investment to take the time to learn how to do so. I admit that it is possible, in theory, but in practice: if you're that much of an outsider to the field, tell me again how you know your (or your friend's!) work is fantastic and truly ground-breaking? –  Pete L. Clark Jun 25 at 17:27
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Rereading your answer, I found some further nuances. I read it as hinting that a professional may be able to evaluate the friend's papers scientific merit more accurately than the OP, which is probably true. But let me say that I would not myself know how to hire a "professional editor" qualified to do this job for papers in my own field...unless such an editor is actually an academic in the subject area. Is there really a separate pool of "professional editors" with this much subject-level competence in, say, most STEM areas? –  Pete L. Clark Jun 25 at 17:33
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@Pete, the questioner did not write the paper, his/her friend did. So, the questioner's inability to evaluate does not provide information on the author's ability and experience. As for how the questioner thinks the work is fantastic or ground breaking, I share your thoughts but it's not the question for me to address. –  Penguin_Knight Jun 25 at 17:40
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@Pete, I have added "Editors can come with different specialties, some are experienced in medical writing, some are in science. Check their portfolio and try to match the article type as best as you can" to clarify the answer. Thanks. –  Penguin_Knight Jun 25 at 17:42
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Penguin: Your comments are all helpful. Regarding your last: I'm not trying to be critical. I'm saying that -- well into my adult academic career -- I simply don't know any "professional editor" to whom I could usefully give a paper in my field, especially one which is ground-breaking and difficult to read. Are there actually such people? This is not a rhetorical question: I would be most interested to know! (Ironically, I am about to go off and lead a workshop on mathematical writing. Oh, well: in the land of the blind, the half-sighted man is king.) –  Pete L. Clark Jun 25 at 18:05

I would like to offer a little bit of writing advice that should be pertinent to the situation, even though it does not answer the post directly.

I think it is important to keep the attitude of "how great this is! the world really needs this!" in writing: it helps you maintain the energy to carry out the effort. However, the attitude itself should be muted or very carefully treated in scientific writing. If anyone is going to read it, they are going to be excited by a careful summary that reveals the basic ideas and then more so by something that explains the ideas in an accessible fashion. (I have made it a policy to ignore any Internet links advising to help me by using a "weird tip"; I discourage using similar promotional language which might appeal to people who, erm, "think less", or maybe "think differently", than science, engineering, and other professionals.) Here is an example from Jorge Cham on Cosmic Inflation http://phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1691 that manages to convey the excitement and ideas without sounding cheesy. You may find it useful as well as inspiring.

I don't have any guides, but a suggestion for meta-guides: find examples of awards for good science and engineering writing and look at those. In combination with the guides mentioned in another answer, you as writer should be able to deconstruct the examples to find which characteristics you want to use in helping your friend.

Good luck.

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