Scientific Community #3 — Analyzing the Literature to find out more about the Community

And what is the Scientific Community doing about these problems, young people? THEY’RE CLONING SHEEP. Great! Just what we need! Sheep that look MORE ALIKE than they already do! Thanks a lot, Scientific Community!
Dave Barry

As the third posting after The Scientific Method is People and Getting Into the Community the Right Way, what do you do when you cannot get into the community the right way, i.e., by having someone on your side as mentor or supervisor who shows you the ropes and opens doors for you?

Well, ideally, you should run.

Don’t stay, don’t go, run.

Unfortunately, some departments want to ‘cover’ new topics and the get PhD students who do not know the topic, nor anything about that specific scientific community and their quality criteria, and ask them to do research in that area. As the department heads do not know the scientific community and are often hesitant to show their lack of knowledge, this leaves a PhD student with the incredibly hard task of getting to know the topic of a sub-discipline and the community. And not only well enough to give some courses on what is already known, but to contribute to the high-level discussion in that discipline.

Possible, yes, but incredibly hard.

What’s worse, even if you manage to do it, you are at a disadvantage to all those students who worked with a topic their supervisor was an expert in. While these students could already contribute to existing projects and gather their first (co-)authorships, you were still learning how to write papers that offer a meaningful contribution to high-level experts (on your own!). This makes it extremely hard to compete with them later when publication numbers is all that counts.

So, if you have the chance to work in a department where you have no synergies, no guidance, no mentors, no supervisors who can give you qualified and personal feedback — save yourself the trouble. It’s one thing to use bachelor, masters, or diploma students to explore new (sub)disciplines, but quite another to burn PhDs and Post-Docs this way by hampering their careers from the start.

Doing it anyway

But okay, suppose you have to do it anyway, perhaps you want to open up a new line of research, what can you do? The great thing about the different scientific communities is that their communication is frequently asynchronous and externalized — via publications in journals. That’s what counts as money in Academia (besides research grants) and that’s also what you can use to get to know the community. Even conferences usually require (short) articles which end up in proceedings or on websites.

However, journals and proceedings have the disadvantage that they are usually a couple of months to years old. So, visit the conferences — as specialized as you can understand — as well.

With papers, go wild in the beginning. Try to get an overview by reading literature reviews and meta analysis and then do a triage to find the literature you need to read, you want to read, and you might not really need to read. Try to get an impression of the debates:

  • Who discusses what with whom?
  • What are the positions?
  • How is the debate conducted?
  • What are the open questions?

Analyzing the Literature

One book that I found invaluable in evaluating the literature and which I have recommended again and again is the book by Thomson and Kamler (2013). The go into the details in a much better way than I can do here.

Among others, they point out that the editors and the reviewers of a journal are respected members of that scientific community. The authors also warn against an “impact-down” “strategy” when it comes to submitting papers. The worst advice I ever got was to submit my papers to the journals with the highest impact factors in the domain. It set me up for failure and wasted years — not because the papers weren’t any good, but because they did not fit the community. If you get that advice from someone be very wary what this person tells you — they might be right occasionally, but on the whole it’s likely that they give really, really bad advice.

Also note that journal submissions are not for getting feedback on your writing — never submit a draft. You are wasting the time of the reviewers and as a reviewer myself I just hate it. If the article is written well it’s a joy to give feedback, but if it’s a draft with major holes in it, it does cost a lot of time to give feedback.

But back to analyzing the literature, Thomson & Kamler (2013) recommend, among others to ask the following questions:

  1. Who is in the community?
    Look at the editorial board — did you cite some of them? If not, does your work really fit to that journal (= community)? If you think it does, how would these people react to your work, based on what they have written and the positions that have? Would they see connections to your work? If so, which? Did you point them out in your article? Are there people for whom your work is particularly interesting?
    You need to connect to the discussion — and do this explicitly.
    Disclaimer: Do not ever cite someone just because you want to have cited them to “make” your paper fit. This is not about flattery (which, unfortunately, some people will accept, but others will hate you for it). It must make sense.
  2. What does this community publish?
    Have a look at the past 6+ issues (at least titles and abstract). Does your research fit to that journal? Which topics do they deal with? Which do they avoid (and why?)? Which positions do they take and how strongly do they argue for specific positions? Which theories do they use? Which methods?
  3. What is the mission statement of that journal?
    Thomson and Kamler point out that you need to look at the publications in detail first before reading the mission statement. Otherwise, given the degree of ambiguity, you might only think that your contribution fits.
  4. Lastly, what does the editor see as the goal of the journal?
    If this person wants to achieve certain goals and your submission fits these goals, go ahead. A journal does not only externalize the communication in the community, it does also shape it (as do conferences).

Compare publications and other submissions to watching a group of strangers talk at a party. If you just move up to them and start telling them about issues that you find interesting it won’t get you accepted. Even if the content is interesting, the style is wrong. Listen first, get to know how they talk and how they convey information, argument, and evidence. The issue here is not to play to them, to tell them only what they want to hear, but to understand them well enough to make yourself and your contribution understood. This can mean adapting the style and setting different focuses of your submission, this can also mean selecting a different journal.

Ideally, you have supervisors and colleagues who can act as in-house interpreters and give you feedback on how to write your submission. If not, it will take some trial and error, some reflection, and some luck.

Crafting the message

One important issue that Thomson and Kamler point out is that you must make your contribution explicit. Yes, the editors and reviewers will tell you whether your contribution is important (enough) for publication, but do not hide your contribution from them. And while many papers have a clearly defined structure aimed to promote objectivity (e.g., IMRAD – Introduction, Methods, Results, And Discussion), you must argue for the importance of your contribution.

After all, the goal of a scientific paper is to advance the knowledge in a domain, to go beyond the known and not to re-invent the wheel. Do not only describe what you have done, but reflect about the results (in the discussion!) and the contribution. And make it easy for the reviewers to follow your thoughts — focus on one or two new ideas and build bridges by referring to the known (a lot). Also write in a way a reader can understand even if s/he is reading your paper during the morning/evening commute (trust me, it happens).

If you do not know how to condense months or years of research into one handy little description or take-away, Thomson and Kamler suggest two useful strategies: The first is imagining you were doing an elevator pitch, the second is imagining someone would refer to your research in their article (literature summary). It does not take a lot of sentences to condense it to the key message. Not really, just look at your article and how you have done it with other people’s research again and again. Your paper cannot be everything to everyone, it must have a point. That’s the message you must convey, e.g., in the abstract.

Thomson and Kamler have other interesting suggestions. I highly recommend having a look at their book. I have also written a posting that provides a Scientific / Academic Paper Writing Template based on that book (and others) that might be interesting.

Conclusion and a Final Warning (Update)

The artifacts of the scientific community you want to join — journal papers and conference proceedings — can tell you a lot about them and how to make yourself understood. However, it takes time, probably too much time to do so without help.

Ah, and while re-reading this posting, one issue that is important if you do experiments. Make sure to find two or three journals which would fit the topic and style of your experiment before you do it. And the style consists of more than the independent and dependent variables. Esp. if you are doing studies with humans, you often cannot add to the data afterwards. Which might kill your paper if that community expect certain variables and procedures.

In the last posting I conclude this short series about the scientific community.



Thomson, P., & Kamler, B. (2013). Writing for Peer Reviewed Journals. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

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