The Training Page

FROM THE FELLOWS COMMITTEE

Want to Improve Your Scientific Writing Skills? There’s Training for That!

The primary responsibilities of most NIH trainees include running experiments and analyzing data. But effectively reporting scientific findings is arguably an even more important task. Without adequate skills in writing, scientists are less likely to get grants or have their work published. Studies show that journal articles that are written in clear, accessible language were likely to received more citations than less well-written articles (Proc Nat Acad Sci U S A 116:341–343, 2016).

Despite the clear importance of skilled writing in scientific careers, many trainees have never gone through formal training to acquire these skills. Fortunately, the NIH intramural program offers several resources to improve writing skills including coursework in scientific writing, editing opportunities, and grant-writing workshops.

In a workshop offered by the Foundation for Advanced Education in the Sciences (FAES) titled “Writing and Publishing a Scientific Paper,” participants gain insight into the publishing process from a science journal editor’s perspective. Over the course of three weeks (including four classroom sessions), participants are guided through writing a complete paper based on their own data. In addition, attendees get tips on constructing figures and tables, writing cover letters, understanding the peer-review process, and responding effectively to reviewers’ comments. Trainees at every level of education and language ability can benefit from the course. “The greatest barriers to becoming a skilled scientific writer are not making an effort to improve (like taking writing courses or online tutorials) and not learning from mistakes,” said workshop instructor Maggie Meitzler, who has extensive science-journal editing experience. “Every minute you spend learning about writing will pay off because it will lessen the time spent on writing projects, thus saving you valuable time in your research career.”

“I would recommend this course to others who are in the final stages of a project and are looking to put together a manuscript,” said postbaccalaureate fellow Lynde Wangler (National Institute on Aging), a recent workshop participant. “Through peer-review groups and instructor feedback, the workshop helped me to write more clearly and concisely, convey what the results mean to the field, and … better tell a ‘story’ when writing about our research.”

Meitzler offered a few key pieces of writing advice for trainees: “First, get started immediately. Allowing time for revisions is the key to a good scientific paper. Second, read every word of the Author Guidance section of your target journal. And lastly, writing a scientific paper is not a solitary sport. You have help from co-authors, collaborators, reviewers, and journal editors, plus the free editorial services at NIH.”

One of those editing services that Meitzler referred to can also be an excellent training opportunity. Intramural trainees can become members of the Fellows Editorial Board (FEB), which offers fellows a free, fast, and confidential scientific document editing service to other fellows. They recently celebrated their 1,000th submission. Members are immersed in the editing process right away and get to learn by doing, rather than by just observing or reading about English grammar.

FEB Senior Editor Brandi Carofino (National Cancer Institute) explained FEB’s win-win structure for editors and trainees submitting their manuscripts: “Through our tiered review system, the work of each editor is reviewed by several others. Help and feedback is provided when necessary. I think this active-learning approach benefits both the editors and the fellows receiving the manuscript review service.” The experience also exposes editors to subjects outside of their expertise. “Sometimes it’s easier to spot holes in the storytelling when you are not an expert in the area being discussed,” said Carofino. “Most journals want the work to be accessible to a general audience, which is easy to forget when we are a bit close to the data.”

Echoing a piece of writing advice from Meitzler, Carofino commented, “A surprising number of authors do not format their manuscript according to their target journal’s requirements. It’s important to pay close attention to [these requirements] since some journals won’t even send your manuscript out for review if it doesn’t use the right template or have the correct organization of sections.”

Other resources are available for trainees seeking to improve grant-writing skills. The Office of Intramural Training and Education, for example, periodically offers grant-writing workshops. Several other NIH institutes and centers hold more in-depth courses and workshops; some workshops include written assignments and feedback on drafts of applications.


RESOURCES

FAES GRAD 500 Writing and Publishing a Scientific Paper Workshop: https://faes.org/content/writing-publishing-scientific-paper-workshop

Office of Intramural Training and Education events: https://www.training.nih.gov/events/upcoming

NIH grant-writing workshops and courses: https://www.cc.nih.gov/training/resources/grant_writing.html

Fellows Editorial Board: https://www.cancer.gov/grants-training/training/resources-trainees/career-planning/submit-editorial-board