In August 2018, YWP Finland together with Aalto University’s Water and Environmental Engineering research group organized a scientific writing and publication workshop for doctoral students working in the field of water research. The workshop had 22 participants from universities and research institutes around the Nordic and Baltic countries. Their research topics ranged from hydrogeology to microbiology, from water governance to wastewater treatment, and many others. Thus, the group was very diverse in many aspects.
The first day of the four day workshop was begun with a discussion of the motivation to write and publish. Even though we live in the reality of a “publish or perish” culture, we should try to remember the actual purpose of our research and its impact. We are drowning with articles and publications that won’t be read. The facilitator of the workshop, Prof. Gustaf Olsson summed it up nicely by reminding us that impact is more important than impact factors.
Prof. Olsson furthermore urged us to think about the reader. According to him, the issue is not what to say but what the reader wishes to learn. Thus, we spent quite a lot of time in the workshop on the titles of papers as titles convey the main message and purpose of the whole paper. Formulating an informative title helps you to organize and clarify the main point of your paper. All participants had a chance to work on their titles and get personal feedback.
On the second day the participants were challenged to present their research in just 2 minutes. It might seem confusing why there were presentations in a workshop focusing on writing and publishing, but many of the same principles apply both to oral and written presentations. When you have to explain your research in two minutes, it forces you to clarify your paper’s main idea.
The rest of the day was spent on discussing the actual writing process of a journal article. Starting with the Introduction, Prof. Olsson suggested flipping the traditional structure. He encourages to state the purpose and what you’ve done as early on as possible, and only after that explain the background. Stating the purpose in the beginning helps the reviewer (and the eventual reader) to contextualize the background. Again, the participants had plenty of time to rewrite their introductions and get feedback.
The ‘materials and methods’ section is about finding the balance between brevity and completeness. Methods need to be described in such a detail that the research could be verified by others. Thus, it is not enough to refer to some standard methods, but you need to describe what you actually did in your research.
Regarding the results, Prof. Olsson gave useful advice on how to present them in figures and tables. One should only include results that will be discussed in the article and that are relevant to the objectives. Prof. Olsson also told us that as a reviewer, he often starts with the figures and tables. If they are unclear or contain errors, he will not read the rest of the paper. Each table and figure should be understandable on their own without reading the text. An important detail is that when you are presenting quantitative results be realistic with the accuracy. To the reviewer, accuracy is a quick indicator of whether the author has understood the analytical methods they’ve used.
Discussion is the heart of the article. In an article, it is not enough to present results, but you should also explain them and this should be done in ‘Discussion’ section. In Discussion, you should answer the questions you posed in the Introduction. Conclusions then again should present in a short and concise manner the take-home message of the paper.
On the third day of the workshop, the focus was on the editor’s point of view and ethical rules related to publishing. In addition, there was two guest lectures. Dr. Petro Poutanen gave a lecture of Communicating with the public –from manuscripts to debates on social media. Communicating your research results to wider audiences is becoming ever more important, and social media is a good tool to achieve this.
When communicating about research to the scientific community or to wider audiences, one key issue is how to handle uncertainties of your research. Dr. Joseph Guillaume gave insights and advice on how to frame uncertainty.
No workshop would be complete without an after work event so after working hard on the manuscripts the participants got to know each other better, relax a bit and enjoy some Finnish food.
On the last day of the workshop, participants had a second chance and one minute more compared to day 2 to present their research. This exercise showed the progress made during the workshop. Every participant now communicated more clearly the main messages and purposes of their research.
Prof. Olsson also gave general advice on presenting. As with writing, there are a lot of good instructions available and “rules of thumb”, but you need to find your own style and the way that works for you. And to do this, you need to practice, practice and practice some more.
From the point of view of YWP Finland, the workshop was very successful. Based on a feedback survey, 55 % of the respondents found the workshop to be very useful, and the rest found it to be useful. The participants appreciated particularly the committed guidance and support they received from Prof. Olsson, peer support from each other, and the warm atmosphere.
YWP Finland would like to thank Prof. Olsson for his dedication and enthusiasm to share his extensive experience to help young water professionals develop their competencies in scientific writing and publishing. Due to his caring and committed attitude, the atmosphere of the workshop was warm and encouraging.
Furthermore, we want to express our gratitude to Aalto University’s Water and Environmental Engineering research group and especially Dr. Maija Taka who made the workshop possible. The research group provided the resources to organize the workshop and Dr. Taka made sure that all practicalities worked so that facilitators and participants could focus on the contents of the workshop. We appreciate also the help from the assistant facilitators Dr. Anna Mikola and Dr. Irina Levchuk.
Thank you also to the guest lecturers, Dr. Joseph Guillaume and Dr. Petro Poutanen, the Finnish Environment Institute inviting us to have our after work in their head office, and Maa- ja vesitekniikan tuki ry for providing financial support for the travel and accommodation costs of the participants. In addition, thank you to IWA YWP.
Last but not least thank you to the participants who devoted four days of their busy schedules to attend the workshop. They supported and encouraged each other and gave constructive comments. They asked good questions and shared their own experiences that made the workshop better. Furthermore, all came to the workshop with open minds, ready to learn and work hard on their manuscripts. Thank you!
YWP Finland hopes that the workshop made an impact and contributed to create a more meaningful scientific publication culture, and to the development of doctoral education in water research.
Resources for scientific writing & publishing:
- Top 10 hints for abstract writing by Xiaoyuan Zhang and Gustaf Olsson
- IWA YWP has organized a series of webinars related to conferences (e.g. abstract writing, full paper writing and paper review). Check out recordings of the webinars.
- Furthermore, IWA YWP Conferences provide a great opportunity to practice reviewing, and this way also gaining insights on paper writing from the reviewer’s point of view. Find information about the next conference.
- You can find out more information about IWA YWP on their website and Facebook group.
- Dr Joseph Guillaume’s lecture slides: Uncertainty framing: How to communicate the role of uncertainty in conclusions
- Responsible Research – Guide to research integrity, research ethics and science communication in Finland –website by Finnish National Board on Research Integrity TENK and the Committee for Public Information TJNK