Opinion: Senior Scientists Should Be Writing

Three reasons why authorship matters, even—perhaps especially—to established scholars

Apr 7, 2015
Jens P. Goetze and Jens F. Rehfeld

WIKIMEDIA, COLINSuccess in science is largely defined by publishing scientific results in relevant journals. However, writing science is about much more than simply describing methods, reporting results, calculating statistics, and quantifying one’s career achievements. It’s a critical skill that can improve one’s research.

Scientific authorship has become a muddy matter, as most life science papers now often list several authors. Indeed, coauthorship constitutes are large part of a scientific life, and this sometimes lead to difficulties of giving the rightful people intellectual credit. Didactically, it is also a misnomer, as the word “author” still refers to one who writes. With scientific papers boasting a dozen or more “authors,” it is almost impossible to accept the title for each individual.

Writing science is a fundamental part of scientific projects for young scientists, typically in the form of a thesis, which is based on published papers. Often, the senior author provides mentorship for the scholar and, through scientific writing, gradually teaches the pupil on how to communicate science to fellow scientists. In fact, last authorship is today synonymous with seniority and thus valuable in terms of obtaining academic credit. More experienced scientists may, consciously or unconsciously, distance themselves from the writing process and instead provide guidance and input.

In the humanities, law, and philosophy, this practice seems unthinkable—in these fields, the writing process, itself, is an integral tool for the question at hand. Here we argue that life scientists should grab the pen—or take to the keyboard—more often.

  1. Writing science brings structure to scientific thinking. One must humbly consider the results and choose their main message, as well as where and why they are important. By boiling down complex experimental results into what’s truly important, authors often gain a clearer perspective on their meaning, which can enhance storytelling. After all, scientific papers are more than data and graphs—they are stories to be shared.
     
  2. Writing a great scientific paper often is the source of an author’s next great paper. Some researchers still puzzle themselves over where the good ideas come from. The creative process of processing present results can spark new ideas.
     
  3. Scientific writing is a lifelong skill. A vast number of great scientists remain active in their fields well into old age. Often, this activity is reflected in that they keep themselves active in the writing phase, where aging-related handicaps are typically of little importance. It requires keeping active in communicating science and stay at the painful frontier by means of publishing and receiving feedback and criticism in order to stay alert.

Scientists should embrace the pleasures of the writing phase. Research remains a highly personal and intellectual activity. Given all the advantages of writing about one’s work, scientists should invest time in learning to communicate it well.

Jens P. Goetze and Jens F. Rehfeld are professors of clinical biochemistry at the University of Aarhus and Copenhagen.